Margaret Jennings says there is a wealth of research showing that a sedentary lifestyle with little or no exercise can lead to a higher risk of life-threatening diseases.
“STAND UP! By now you know that sitting down is slowly killing you and we want to help you live longer.”
If that statement made you sit up, then that’s a start, at least. It’s the wording of an introduction to Stand Up, just one of the many apps developed to remind us to get up and move at regular intervals, if we want to stave off an early death.
It’s perhaps ironic, that such apps and wearables come via our smartphones, computers and tablets — devices that are arguably contributing even further to keeping us in a sitting position, engrossed in our screens.
But this is no gimmick. Research is piling up to suggest that the longer we sit in the day, especially without any exercise, the higher the risk of life-threatening diseases.
Only last month a University of California San Diego School of Medicine study reported that women, aged between 64 and 95, with low physical activity and 10 hours of daily sitting time, had cells biologically older by eight years, compared to women who were less sedentary.
“It is now considered that sitting of itself, may be an independent predictor of health, with increased sitting time associated with cardiovascular diseases and metabolic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, as well as ageing and dementia,” says Dr Brian Carson, an exercise physiologist in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences department at UL.
The Irish LongituDinal study on Ageing (TILDA) showed that only 34% of older Irish adults reach the recommended physical activity guidelines, but there is currently no data on objectively measured sedentary behaviour among that demographic.
This is now being rectified, as Carson, in collaboration with the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCC, is currently investigating the sitting behaviour and cardiometabolic health outcomes, of a cohort of older adults in the Mitchelstown area of Cork.
“We currently have seven days of objectively measured data on physical activity, standing, sleep and sitting, of more than 300 older adults,” he says.
“This data is exciting as it will inform us of the pattern of this behaviour in these individuals and any associations with their cardiometabolic health and thus allow us to design appropriate interventions in an Irish context.”
Last year, the peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet, released a follow up to its 2012 series on Physical Activity entitled Physical Activity 2016: Progress and Challenges.
One of the key papers, summarising data from more than one million participants, showed that those who have low physical activity and sit for up to eight hours per day, are up to 59% more likely to die from all causes than those who are highly active and sit for less than four hours per day.
Furthermore, the evidence shows that if you sit for greater than eight hours per day you need to undertake approximately 60-75 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity to offset the negative health effects of prolonged sitting.
“Such research clearly has health implications for our older adult population in which we see an increase in sitting behaviour and a decline in physical activity where only 34% of older Irish adults meet the guidelines,” says Carson.
“It also has implications for older adults in the workplace, with an increase in sedentary work.”
Dr Brendan Egan senior lecturer in sport and exercise physiology at DCU who has an expert interest in muscle mass and strength, says that in modern life, even if we do a half hour of purposeful exercise in the morning, we spend about 90% of the rest of our waking time in a seated position.
“So even if you do exercise during the day, if you do it in a single bout and spend the rest of the time sitting you could be what is called ‘an active couch potato’,” he says.
“Among the many other things that inactivity is associated with, is the likelihood to lead to loss of muscle mass and strength. But in
the elderly, inactivity-associated muscle losses can be as much as three times the size, in one-third of the time, compared to young healthy adults.”
Ireland is looking to pioneer the way in encouraging standing at the workplace as part of the National Physical Activity Plan launched in 2016 by Ministers Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donoghue.
The plan includes 60 action points with the aim to “Get Ireland Active”.
The Irish Sports Monitor (ISM) reported in 2013 that a higher proportion of sedentary individuals (9%) had watched more than five hours of TV in the previous day, compared to highly active individuals (3%).
Being aware that you need to take a break from sitting is a good start. And it can consist, says Carson, of simple actions like:
1. Getting up to make a phone call and moving around while talking
2. Stretching your limbs and major muscle groups to maintain your mobility
3. Walking to the shop instead of driving
4. Visiting a neighbour
5. Taking the stairs
After all, it’s important to remember that the human body is designed to move.
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