How Prolonged Sitting Can Affect Your Health

By Wendy Innes. May 7th 2016

Many people are aware that a sedentary lifestyle can be very unhealthy. Researchers and doctors have known for decades that those who don't get enough exercise face increased risks of various health problems. The issue with many people is not just a lack of exercise, but also a complete lack of physical activity. If you find that you are on the couch or sitting in a chair throughout most of the day, you may want to look into the possible dangers of prolonged sitting.


Diabetes has long been associated with obesity and researchers have long been aware that those with a sedentary lifestyle have a higher risk of becoming obese and developing type II diabetes. But now research is also indicating that even people who exercise regularly, as recommended by experts and public health officials, still have poor cardio-metabolic markers, which increases their risk of developing diabetes as well as other health problems.

One study out of Harvard University suggests that men who spend more than 40 hours per week watching television have a threefold increased risk for developing type II diabetes compared with those who only spend one hour per week watching television. The study showed that for every two hours spent watching television, there was a 20 percent increase in the risk for developing diabetes.

Another study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that women had an increased risk of developing diabetes, even if they participated in vigorous exercise. The study used blood tests to measure such risk factors as insulin dependence and inflammation markers. Researchers found that there was a correlation between the amount of time that women spent sitting and their risk for diabetes. In the study, women sat for an average of five hours per day, including time spent working as well as time spent watching TV. The same study also took into account the women's body mass index and found that obesity was also a contributing factor.

Heart Disease

The link between heart disease and a sedentary lifestyle is nothing new. Those who don’t exercise are often the same people who develop heart disease later in their life. But the Harvard University study on sedentary lifestyles actually quantifies how unhealthy it is.

According to the study, for every two hours per day that a person spends sitting that person's risk of developing cardiovascular disease increases by 15 percent. (For information on preventing cardiovascular disease, see 10 Easy Steps To Preventing Cardiovascular Disease.)

The effects of prolonged sitting are the result of disrupted metabolic functions. These disruptions lead to vascular problems over time, such as elevated levels of triglycerides, lower levels of high-density lipoproteins (the "good" cholesterol) and decreased insulin sensitivity. In short, a sedentary lifestyle causes very unhealthy metabolic changes, the kind that can significantly shorten a person's life.


No one wants to be diagnosed with any type of cancer, but for those who spend the majority of their time sitting, that diagnosis becomes a real possibility, according to researchers out of Alberta Health Services-Cancer Care in Calgary, Canada. According to their research, those who spend long periods of time sitting have a 35 percent higher risk of developing colon cancer and a 25 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer. (For tips that can help prevent breast cancer, check out 10 Manageable Ways To Prevent Breast Cancer.)

The cause of this increase is inflammation, according to the study. It found that those who were less active had higher inflammation markers, such as c-reactive protein, than those who were more active. Researchers caution, however, that inflammation isn't the only factor. Others include insulin resistance, body fat composition and hormones. But all of these are related to physical activity and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, making the case that spending long periods of time sitting contributes to an increased risk of cancer.


A study published in the British Medical Journal has found that those who spend extended periods of time sitting could be shortening their life by more than two years, in addition to the shorter life expectancy associated with the other medical conditions that a sedentary lifestyle contributes to.

The study looked at those who spend a significant amount of time sitting and watching television and it found that by reducing the amount of time that Americans spend in front of the television to less than three hours a week, they can add two years to their lives. In this study, 80 percent of the participants spend more than six hours of their day sitting and almost 50 percent spent 2-4 hours watching television. The implication is clear; Americans spend too much time being "couch potatoes." It's time to get up and get moving.

Tips To Get Off Your Rear End

Those who spend the majority of their time sitting can do things to reduce their risk of health problems or early death.

  • Try standing while working, even if it's only for a short period of time.
  • Go for a walk on breaks or during lunch time.
  • Physical walk over and talk with a co-worker instead of sending an email or text message.
  • Work more activity into leisure time. Instead of watching a movie or playing video games, go to the park or play mini-golf.
  • If possible, try a treadmill desk. These are specially designed desks that allow a person to walk on a treadmill at a reasonable pace, while working at a computer work-station.

While prolonged sitting has become a common part of people's daily routine, whether it’s through commuting, at work or in class, it doesn't mean that they need to spend their leisure time that way. By increasing activity and reducing the amount of time spent sitting, people could actually add years to their lives, and be healthy enough to enjoy them.


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