Personal Health

Disturbing New Research Shows Women Die Younger from Sitting Too Much at Work -- Here's How We Can Save Our Lives

Many jobs require sitting for long periods of time, which has been found to shorten lifespan. But there are things you can do (short of quitting your job).

Ever felt like your job was killing you?

It may be, although not for the reasons you might think. The New York Post reported on a study claiming that sitting for extended periods of time can shorten a person’s lifespan. If you’re sitting right now, fear not, there are some things you can do.

The American Cancer Society conducted the study over 14 years, following 123,216 men and women to gauge their mortality rates in relation to their activity levels. They found that over the 14 years women who sat more than six hours daily were 37 percent more likely to die during that time than women who sat less than three hours daily. Men who sat more than six hours daily were only 18 percent more likely. The article notes, “Sitting…suppresses hormones that affect triglycerides and cholesterol, which could trigger heart disease.” 

Unless a person’s job requires manual labor or is sports-related it's most likely that a quick tally of daily seated hours will sum up to at least six, if not more. Sitting usually starts early in the day, over breakfast or coffee, and continues from there. The morning commute, sitting at a computer, in meetings, at lunch, the afternoon commute, and then – if you’re anything like most people I know – you come home after a long day and sit down. Yes, that’s a lot of sitting.

You might be thinking, “Sure, I may sit a lot but I work out daily so I’m good.” Unfortunately, the grim picture this study paints is not brightened by exercise. In the official report releasethe study’s lead author says, "Even if you are active, sitting for long periods of time will impact your health, and you'll have a shorter lifespan…Whether a person is sitting at a desk, or sitting on a couch, sitting for long periods of time is harmful." She also points out that even if a person sleeps for eight hours and works out for one that still leaves 15 hours open for sitting. While sitting for that length of time would require a concentrated effort or meditation, sitting for half that time is easy.

So what does this all mean? It's clearly impractical for everyone to quit their jobs, overhaul their lives and seek out more physical occupations. Of course there are jobs that require movement – athlete, dancer, scuba diving instructor and yoga teacher, to name a few. However, these jobs aren’t accessible and perhaps not even desirable for everyone.

In fact, as a culture we are mostly conditioned to sit. In Eastern Body, Western Mind, a guide to the connections between modern psychology and the Chakra system, Anodea Judith aptly describes this conditioning:

Universities educate our minds at the cost of our bodies, where we sit completely still for days, months, and years, training ourselves for sit-down jobs that continue to ignore the body’s needs.

Whether you believe in the Chakra system or think of it as hippie psychobabble, this statement is hard to argue with. Most of us probably relate to the notion that we are sent through life on a path lined with seats.

In another book Judith offers some practical solutions for the sedentary nature of modern life. This one is my favorite: while riding public transportation, try to find and maintain your balance without leaning or holding onto anything. This might sound simple, but as someone who’s been doing it for a while I can attest to the enormous amount of focus and muscle control it takes. Real surfers may scoff, but this actually does require skills akin to those needed for surfing. It also saves me a lot of disappointment since I’m no longer jumping on the train and wistfully gazing around for an open seat.

This is perfect proof that a quick rethinking of the daily routine can reveal many possibilities for movement. Whether it’s simulated surfing on the subway, opting to walk over to a coworker rather than send an email, or even just standing on alternating legs during a long conference call, there are many ways to inject activity into long periods of sitting. If you’re the competitive type, think of it as a game -- how much less time can you spend sitting each day while still maintaining your level of productivity? Get some work friends involved and start a proper competition – it’s bound to be more fun than a dreaded office weight-loss competition.

I’ll admit, however, that while it’s possible to sneak in little bursts of activity throughout the day you may end up sitting more than three hours, regardless. Frankly, that number of hours seems nearly impossible to me. The only feasible way to achieve this would be by adding the word “still” after sitting. It is certainly possible to avoid sittingstill for more than three hours a day.

In an article for the New York Times, Olivia Judson affirms that sitting still is the culprit. According to Judson, even chewing gum burns more calories than just sitting still. Seems our grade school teachers weren’t informed of this perk.The best news in her article is for those of us who find ourselves sometimes restless or anxious: fidgeting is your friend. Yes, fidgeting. Sure you may not garner favor with the person sitting next to you at the staff meeting but you’ll be moving. And sufferers of restless leg syndrome can rejoice! Seems that you, along with pacers and fidgeters like myself, are actually on the path to a longer life.

Ultimately, the message the study authors have for the public is this: Sit less, increase overall activity and live longer. By rethinking "activity" to include standing on the subway, walking down the hall to talk to a coworker, and standing or fidgeting at your desk this recommendation is doable.

What are some creative ways you manage to avoid sitting for hours on end?

Aliza Bartfield is an NYC-based event planner, yoga teacher and writer.