Even if you exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet, researchers are increasingly finding just the act of sitting for long hours—something many of us are forced to do for work—still predisposes you to many modern ailments. However, new findings show you don’t have to give up your desk job to stay healthy as long as you set an alarm that frequently reminds you to stand up.
Long days of sitting are linked with increased risk of heart disease, excess belly fat, chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, and diabetes. The metabolic changes predisposing us to these conditions happen quickly, within 24 hours.
Fortunately for the desk jockeys, former NASA researcher Joan Vernikos, who studied the negative effects of sitting and how to counteract them, presents evidence for a sitting antidote in her book Sitting Kills, Moving Heals. Vernikos’ research found you can counteract the negative effects of sitting by standing up. A lot.
Best results are achieved by simply standing up every 20 minutes. It’s best to set an online alarm so you don’t forget because stretching out your intervals to even every 35 minutes provides only a fraction of the benefit. What is even more interesting is that standing every 20 minutes is more effective than going for a daily walk in terms of ameliorating the effects of long hours in the chair (although daily walks are extremely beneficial for a host of other reasons.)
Why standing up frequently helps combat sitting disease
The key to standing up frequently is that it forces your body to interact with gravity. One thing the space program has learned is the body and brain require gravity in order to function. Vernikos saw the lack of gravitational forces that sickened and prematurely aged astronauts had the same effect on bedridden people. NASA researchers learned a gravity-free environment accelerates the aging process by 10 times. The same mechanisms that cause one to age quickly in space lie behind the increased risk of disease from sitting long hours.
Although regular strength training workouts, high-intensity interval sessions, and even daily walks have been associated with dramatically lower risks of disease and dementia, the key to combating sitting’s detrimental effects is constant activity throughout each day that forces your body to work against gravity. Vernikos’ findings show gravity plays a role in health and aging, so use it to your advantage as frequently as possible.
This is good news for people who are not willing or able to stand all day at a standing desk (Vernikos says standing all day is also not healthy; we are meant to move through a variety of positions throughout the day). Nor do you necessarily have to build or invest in a treadmill desk. According to Vernikos, humans are meant to squat, kneel, and move consistently throughout the day.
The sitting disease antidote protocol
To combat the negative health effects of sitting disease, do the following:
- Find an online alarm or alarm app that goes off every 20 minutes, reminding you to stand. Sitting and standing 35 times in a row does not deliver the same effect as spreading it out in regular intervals.
- If possible, work against gravity more vigorously at your 20 minute intervals by squatting or doing squat jumps.
- Move in your chair and maintain good posture with shoulders back as much as possible.
- Incorporate “non-exercise” activity throughout the day, such as reaching for things, bending, kneeling, walking, lifting, and so on. Basically, avoid what is convenient for what is more active.