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Don't sit for this

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I'd say you might want to sit down for the latest news from Down Under, but it turns out you probably don't. Earlier this year, the Sax Institute's 45 and Up Study of 200,000 Australians older than 45 found participants who sat more than 11 hours a day had a 40 per cent higher risk of dying in the next three years than those who sat less than four hours a day.

These findings are in line with those put out in a study published in the July issue of BMJ Open that reported sitting for three hours every day can shave two years off your life. In recent years, the Mayo Clinic, the American Cancer Society and other medical organizations have similarly argued there is a correlation between hours spent seated and an increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular problems and chronic disease.

In fact, some oncologists contend the health risks associated with sitting as much as westerners do is equivalent to smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day.

What is so bad about sitting as much as we do? When we take a seat, electrical activity in our muscles drops, causing our calorie-burning rate to plunge to about a third what it would be when walking. Insulin effectiveness also goes down, increasing the risk of Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Likewise, the number of enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides -- essentially purging fat from the bloodstream -- falls, decreasing the amount of good cholesterol in our bodies and allowing fat cells to accumulate and potentially clog the heart or liver.

In short, sitting makes us bigger, weaker and at greater risk of getting sick.

In the studies carried out, one rather surprising finding is that while going to the gym at lunch or for a run at the end of the day is certainly useful, such structured physical activity does not fully counteract the negative implications of sitting uninterrupted for hours on end. To mitigate these deleterious effects, breaking up long periods of inactivity with regular movement throughout the workday is required. This may be easier said than done in the office culture common for many of us, but with a little creativity is certainly not impossible.

As the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs loved to do, holding meetings while walking, instead of sitting in the boardroom, is a great way to reduce the number of hours confined to a chair. Not only does this improve physical fitness, research shows walking and talking also sharpens mental faculties. (Considering adults also spend 90 per cent of their leisure time sitting down, you might suggest a nice constitutional as a similar alternative the next time a friend wants to go for coffee after work.) When the meeting is by phone, closing the door and putting the caller on speakerphone to chat while walking around the office works just as well.

Of course, we cannot walk all day long, but a recent University of Massachusetts study discovered even just standing burns calories far more effectively than sitting. Some businesses have begun to allow sit-stand workstations -- desks that can be elevated so employees can stay on their feet for a portion of the day. (Buying a music stand and using it to read standing up is an inexpensive way of achieving the same end.) While this is perhaps tiring at first, office staff who stand regularly often report losing weight and building muscle over time.

Even taking public transit, opting to stand for a portion of the journey and enjoying a walk to and from the bus stop, is a great way to reduce the number of hours spent in a chair.

If standing is not possible, active sitting -- keeping muscles in motion to prevent them from binding up -- is the next best thing. By putting an air-filled sitting disc on a chair, for example, you destabilize the sitting surface, forcing your muscles to constantly adjust. When using a sitting disc, even the simple act of turning your head engages muscles throughout the body, burns calories and mitigates many effects of seated inactivity.

Evidence increasingly shows our bodies remain relics of humanity's evolution as active hunters and gatherers; they are at their best when in motion. As such, resisting the temptation of a chair every so often and finding ways to give them the movement they need can keep us healthier, stronger and even more mentally stimulated. And that is definitely not a revelation to take sitting down.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2012 A11

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