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Here’s a breakdown of where the research on sitting stands.

You might want to sit down for this — or actually, stand up: We can confirm that being on your butt all day is not great for your health. And it makes sense. If exercising is good for us, its inverse — staring, unmoving into the abyss of your laptop or phone for hours on end — probably isn’t.

But could something as innocent (and rewarding, comforting, and cozy) really be “toxic,” as Keith Diaz, Ph.D., puts it? The overwhelming answer is: Yes. But why sitting is so bad for us isn’t so simple. It’s not only a lack of physical activity that sets us up for cardiac disease, diabetes, chronic pain, and a laundry list of other conditions. It’s being immobile over long periods of time that’s also harmful, Dr. Diaz, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University, explains. So even if you’re diligent about getting that early morning walk in every day or hitting the gym three times a week, if you sit for long periods as well, that activity is not enough to counteract the damage done by spending the rest of an afternoon on the couch bingeing Netflix.

“Even if you run marathons, how much time you spend sitting outside of that exercise can still increase your risk for chronic diseases,” Dr. Diaz says. “It’s a really toxic behavior.”

Here’s a breakdown of where the research on sitting stands.

Is sitting actually bad for you?

Humans evolved to be active for most of the day, writes James Levine, Ph.D., a former professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, who coined the phrase “sitting is the new smoking.”

“It took nature 2 million years to design the walking, dynamic human, and it took those humans 200 years to reverse the art of nature and cram people into chairs all day long,” he writes. That dramatic shift in lifestyle — from hunting and gathering to scrolling and emailing — is not what our bodies are built for.

A study published in 2019 found that the average American adult sits for about 6.5 hours each day. (Teens are worse, sitting on average for 8 hours a day.) And the pandemic and even the convenience of remote work have pushed us to become even more sedentary, research shows — and modern man is paying for it. Excessive sitting (which could mean either sitting for six or more across a day, or long intervals of being sedentary) has been tied to heart disease, high blood pressure and blood sugar, cancer, dementia, and even early death. A study looking at women between 50 and 79 years old discovered that those who were inactive for more than 11 hours a day raised their risk of premature death by 12 percent. It’s so bad for us that some doctors even recommend sitting “in moderation,” according to Harvard Medical School.

One reason for that seems obvious. When we’re sitting, we’re not burning as many calories as we would on a stroll or even when we’re just standing. That could lead to a cascade of issues, including many of the ones listed above, Dr. Levine says.

There are two other theories that may also compel you to get moving, according to Dr. Diaz. One has to do with our muscles, which help regulate the sugar and triglycerides (fats and lipids) circulating in our blood. When we contract them, they suck those substances out of our bloodstream, but when they lay slack, those levels can get out of whack, Dr. Diaz says. That can lead to diabetes or atherosclerosis, a build-up of cholesterol in the arteries that restricts blood flow and can lead to heart attack or stroke.

The other theory has to do with posture. When we’re seated (even in our ergonomic office chairs), the blood flow slows and the blood tends to pool in the legs, which has the effect of actually raising the blood pressure, Dr. Diaz says.

“When you sit, you’re basically putting a kink in the hose,” he says. “That can be really harmful to your blood vessels,” he tells us. Keep in mind, hypertension is often referred to as the “silent killer,” because it can give rise to so many dangerous cardiac conditions.

Being on our backsides so much can also lead to neck pain, back pain, and a heap of other musculoskeletal issues, says Scott Bautch, a Wisconsin-based chiropractor and the president of the American Chiropractic Association’s council on occupational health. Too often, he sees patients that come to him tormented by sore shoulders or a ceaseless lower back irritation, that’s driven by their histories of hunching over their laptops.

“It’s a crazy crisis,” Bautch tells us.

Is standing better than sitting?

Simply standing is not the answer. Bautch and others say the solution is to develop a movement plan, or what Dr. Diaz refers to as “exercise snacks.” In a recent study, Dr. Diaz and his team tested the effects of four different types of exercise breaks over an eight-hour trial. They had participants either walk one minute after sitting for 30; walk one minute after sitting for an hour; walk five minutes every 30 minutes; or walk five minutes every hour.

The most rigorous routine delivered the strongest benefits — dramatically reducing both blood pressure and blood sugar spikes, researchers found. But even a modest amount of movement or exercise lowered blood pressure, compared to just sitting all day.

It may be a tough habit for desk jockeys to build, but simply taking a walk while you’re on a call, or choosing to walk to the bathroom that’s just a little further from your cubicle, can have a tremendous impact, Dr. Diaz says. (He opts for a cycling desk himself, and says he can get up to 9 miles in during an average Zoom meeting.) Sadly, especially for the standing desk set, he believes that just getting on your feet isn’t enough. The key is finding small ways to actually move and exercise your muscles throughout the day.

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