Is Too Much Sitting Bad For Your Health?

Beware the chair – Add more activity to your day for better health.

Are you sitting down to read this? Perhaps you should be standing up. In a recent study, those who spent almost all of their time sitting had a 54% higher risk of mortality from all causes (except cancer) compared to those who hardly ever sat at all. Even more surprising, the increased risk of mortality was independent of whether they were meeting the recommended guidelines for leisure time physical activity.

too much sitting putting your health at risk

Peter Katzmarzyk, PhD, Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and colleague at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, found that the increased risk of mortality associated with sitting was independent of whether people were exercising at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes, 5 days per week or at a vigorous intensity for 20 minutes, 3 days per week. The study was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, May 2009. It analyzed sitting activity data for more than 17,000 Canadians ages 18-90, and then compared mortality statistics over 12 years.

“If you look at the overall human pattern of movement throughout the day, it doesn’t make sense to focus on 30 minutes of activity. What about the other 23.5 hours in the day? What you do for the rest of the day is also important. You need to look beyond small bumps of activity,” Katzmarzyk says.

The average American now spends 11 hours a day, 5 days a week, sitting. “When you sit for long periods of time,” Katzmarzyk added, “like working at your desk for 8 hours straight, or watching television for long stretches of time, your body shuts down, your metabolism just drops, the active muscle in your legs just go dormant. It’s hazardous to your health: you need to disrupt that sedentary behavior.”

Katzmarzyk and colleagues found in a recent U.S. study that since 1960, the estimated daily energy expenditure from work-related physical activity has dropped by more than 100 calories per day for both women and men. In the early 1960s, almost 50% of jobs required moderate activity whereas now, five decades later, less than 20% of jobs require moderate activity. That 100 calories per day may not seem like much, but over a year, the lost opportunity to burn 36,500 calories accounts for a significant part of the overall increase in U.S. body weights.

So what can we do to take a stand against so much sitting in our daily lives? James A. Levine, MD, PhD, has some compelling recommendations from his research at the NEAT Center at the Mayo Clinic. He calls our increasingly sedentary lifestyle a “sitting disease” and links it directly with the obesity epidemic. In his book, Move a Little, Lose a Lot, he notes that fifty years ago there were no gyms, people didn’t workout, and yet very few people struggled to maintain a healthy weight. Levine says we are plagued now with an obesity epidemic “because we are desk sentenced.”

NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis, represents the calories you burn doing regular daily activities like taking the stairs, walking to lunch or standing up to answer the phone. Incorporating NEAT activities throughout the day helps burn up to an additional 2,000 calories per day by boosting your metabolic rate. Additional benefits are lower blood pressure and increased mental clarity.

Some ideas to get you up out of your chair at frequent intervals:

* Take more steps in a day – Levine says when you walk, “your metabolism literally blasts off.” Add steps to your workday by taking public transit rather than driving to work, use the stairs, go for a walk at lunch, or try conducting a walking meeting. Get a pedometer and track your progress.

* Standup desks are gaining popularity in many workplaces. Levine’s research found that standing burns 3 times as many calories compared to sitting. There are also desks with integrated treadmills that allow you to walk at a slow but steady pace while working.


Download Morsel, GE healthymagination’s free mobile app to recommend easy, healthy activities to incorporate into your day. Check out and to learn about non-sitting desk alternatives for your workspace at home or the office. Watch a video featuring James Levine to see a presentation about NEAT science and the obesity epidemic.

Originally published on GE Healthy Outlook, September 2, 2011. Copyright Jane Langille.

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