Exercise May Not Make Up For Sitting

woman sitting at computer desk

Have a desk job?

The guideline we hear from experts is to do moderate exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. But Ryan Norton, D.O., sports medicine physician, says that this guideline assumes that you are active throughout your day too –walking, standing, and doing work tasks or chores at home that require movement and increase your heart rate. 

"Compared to forty years ago, the main difference in our lifestyles is not that we're exercising less. It's that we're moving less throughout the day," says Dr. Norton. "We focus so much on formal exercise that we discount the importance of general movement." 

And movement is pretty important to your long-term health. Perhaps more important, in fact, than whether or not you hit the gym every day. "Any exercise is better than none, but unless you're highly active (exercising vigorously an hour or more every day), then you aren't fully compensating for long days of sitting at work," Dr. Norton says. So if your job means eight or more hours sitting in front of a computer, your morning walk or yoga class may not be enough to protect you from cardiovascular disease or diabetes. 

What are the health risks of long hours spent sitting?

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • High blood pressure or cholesterol 

  • Type 2 diabetes 

  • Loss of strength and elasticity in your muscles 

There are a few risks that especially matter for women: 

  • Osteoporosis – When you aren't moving, your bones can weaken, putting you at risk for low bone density. 
  • Falling and fractures – This is especially a concern for elderly women. Muscle weakness from inactivity makes a devastating fall more likely. 
  • Cancer – As a whole, cancer risk is higher in those who are inactive, but this is especially true for breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers, all cancers that predominantly impact women. 

Moving more

The solution is to avoid physical inactivity, and the good news is that moving more can be much easier to fit into your day than exercising more, even if you have a desk job. Here are some tips from Dr. Norton: 

  • Spend 10 minutes per hour moving. Maybe you can take a phone call standing or walking. Maybe you can do a few calf raises or squats in your workspace. 
  • Stand to work for half the day. Dr. Norton recommends using a sit-to-stand desk and alternating between sitting and standing, every hour if you can. Standing increases the little movements you make and engages your stabilizing muscles. You burn about 50 calories per hour more standing than sitting. That adds up over the course of the day. 
  • When you sit, sit correctly. Desk ergonomics are no joke. Make sure your computer screen is at eye level, your keyboard and mouse are at a 90-degree angle from your elbows, and your chair has good lumbar support. 
  • Amp up the ways you already move. If you drive to work, park further from your office. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. When you have your lunch break, take a long walk instead of sitting still.