Is Too Much Sitting Killing You?

By Jack Rosenberger

Sitting seems like one of the most innocent human activities, but when done in excess, it is associated with an increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity, according to recent medical studies. Sitting at a desk for just five hours a day, for example, doubles a man’s risk of heart failure, according to an American Heart Association study.  

I first learned about the health risks of excessive sitting last year from one of my biggest fans (yes, my Mom), who mailed me a newspaper article about the topic, which I had never heard about before, and encouraged me to write about it. That led me to write a blog post, “When Sitting Becomes a Disease,” for CIO Insight, which I am proud to report was the site’s most-read blog post in 2013. Clearly, the topic resonated with many of our readers.

Since writing that post, I’ve adjusted my personal and work habits so I can, when possible, avoid excessive sitting, which is defined as nine or more hours of sedentary behavior (excluding sleeping). I routinely get up from my desk and walk around during the day, for instance, and I opt for standing instead of sitting when possible, like during a personal phone call. During the last year I’ve also been on the lookout for new articles, medical research and other information about what happens to my body when I sit on my posterior for too many hours, and everything I’ve read supports the notion—which I discussed in my earlier blog post—that excessive sitting is “a lethal activity.”

A Cornell University study published earlier this year, for example, studied 93,000 American women, ages 50-79, and reported that the women with more than 11 hours of sedentary time had a 12 percent increase in all causes of mortality, compared with the most energetic group, which had four or less hours of sedentary time. The least active group also had notably higher odds of premature death by coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer (27, 21 and 13 percent, respectively).

“The assumption has been that if you’re fit and physically active, that will protect you, even if you spend a huge amount of time sitting each day,” said Rebecca Seguin, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell and coauthor of the study, when it was released in January. “In fact, in doing so you are far less protected from negative health effects of being sedentary than you realize.”

Put another way: even people who routinely exercise are at risk if they have high amounts of sedentary time.

What You Can Do

James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solution Initiative and the person credited with coining the phrase “sitting is the new smoking,” has published a book, Get Up!, which encourages people to replace sitting with other activities. Levine says organizations are addressing the problem of excessive sitting with changes in office equipment, such as treadmill desks (Levine himself has invented one) and standing desks, and in building layouts, which now include walking paths from one department to another as a way to encourage physical activity.

CIOs, of course, can play an important role in transforming employee behavior and the physical workplace.

First, you need to take care of your health. If you work behind a desk, attend a lot of meetings that occur around a large rectangular or oval table, and participate in activities that require everyone in attendance to be seated, you probably spend more hours sitting on your rear end than is healthy for you. Heed the advice of Seguin and others, who encourage employees to get up and move around frequently in the office—or, say, leave the building for a hearty walk.

Second, you need to consider the health of your IT employees. You can support your staff by providing them with the right tools, such as sit/stand, standing, and treadmill desks. And if you get up and move regularly during the day, or leave the building’s confines and have walking meetings, you are setting an example to the people in your department. And you are delivering a message to your IT team—and, naturally, to other departments—that “Everyone’s personal health matters here, take care of it.”

Lastly, one of the most important things you can do is talk about the health risks of excessive sitting with colleagues and coworkers, family members and friends, or even the person waiting next to you in line at the supermarket or Starbucks, and by sharing articles and blog posts like this one. If you make other people aware of the risks of excessive sitting, they can educate themselves further and, one hopes, change their behavior for the better.

About the Author

Jack Rosenberger is the managing editor of CIO Insight. You can follow him on Twitter via @CIOInsight. To read his previous CIO Insight article, “What CIOs Can Learn From Derek Jeter’s ‘Boot Camp,’ ” click here.

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