Lenny Bernstein
Lenny Bernstein
Columnist

Even with exercise, long periods spent sedentary are deemed a health risk

Anyone who’s been paying the slightest bit of attention knows by now that the government and public health organizations want adults to get a minimum amount of exercise on a regular basis.

Generally speaking, guidelines call for 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio (a brisk walk will do) five days a week, two or three weekly sessions of resistance training (usually weightlifting), plus stretching and balance exercises.

(iStock photo/iStock photo)

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Seems like a second full-time job, doesn’t it? If you’re meeting those goals (I admit I’m not), congratulations. The benefits to your long-term health are indisputable.

But now comes sobering news from the American College of Sports Medicine that it might not be enough. For the first time, the world’s largest exercise and sports science organization is singling out our sedentary lifestyle as a health risk factor, regardless of whether we’re getting the proper amount of exercise.

That’s right. You might be working out like a football player at training camp, but if you spend another nine hours each day in front of a computer screen and a few more on the couch watching “How I Met Your Mother” reruns, you’re still endangering your health. And don’t forget that time in the car commuting between your desk and the TV. Or your video game habit.

“Sedentary behavior — sitting for long periods of time — is distinct from physical activity and has been shown to be a health risk in itself. Meeting the guidelines for physical activity does not make up for a sedentary lifestyle,” the ACSM said in the first recent overhaul of its comprehensive recommendations.

Gee, thanks, guys.

This depressing declaration became necessary because “unfortunately there’s been increasing amounts of research that sitting a lot is bad for your health, and that’s true even if you do attain the recommended amount of exercise,” said Carol Ewing Garber, chairman of the group that wrote the new guidelines and an associate professor of movement science at Columbia University. “And that’s quite worrisome on a number of levels, because most people don’t get the recommended amount of exercise.”

Adults spend 60 percent or more of their waking hours sedentary, according to a 2010 review of numerous studies over the past decade, conducted by a group of researchers from Australia and the United States. (Most of the data were gathered by connecting people to accelerometers to measure how long they are still.)

The risks of sitting all day are the ones you’d expect: increased chance of heart disease and diabetes. According to the Canada Fitness Surveys, people who sit a lot showed “significantly poorer long-term mortality outcomes” than those who didn’t. That was true “even among those who were physically active.”

“You don’t want to be engaged in prolonged periods of sedentary behavior,” said Marc Hamilton, a professor of inactivity physiology at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. “Now what is prolonged? Is it 10 minutes? Is it 20 minutes?”

Although the reasons sitting is so bad for you are not totally understood, muscles compose a large part of our bodies and are critical in regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism, Hamilton said. Keep them still for hour upon hour, and you simply won’t burn as many calories as you would if you were moving.

It’s not like these findings should surprise us. Anyone who is parked behind a computer for hours at a time, as I am, becomes acutely aware that nature did not intend for us to spend our days this way. Public health officials have been sounding the alarm about modern sedentary lifestyles for years.

So what can we do? Therein lies some good news.

Just. Get. Up.

The same study I cited above found “intriguing preliminary evidence” that “a higher number of breaks in sedentary time was beneficially associated with waist circumference, body mass index, triglycerides” and other factors.

Yes, research seems to show that by breaking up long periods of sitting still, you can partly counteract the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

“My recommendation from the research is that trying to get up at least once an hour would be a good thing,” Garber said. “Every 30 to 60 minutes, get up while you’re talking on the phone, just for a minute or two.”

Hamilton generally agrees but says the research is so new that recommendations are just guesses. He predicts far-reaching changes in the way we spend our workdays and downtime once the hazards of sitting become widely known.

People need to “find a way they can substantially increase their activity,” he said. It will require “a lot of volume. We need to come up with something better than just taking a jillion little breaks during the day.”

Okay, I gotta go. It’s time for my hourly stroll around the office. Hope you can do the same.

Life after Death Race

In February I wrote about Bruce Allentuck, a 45-year-old father of three from North Potomac who was putting himself through a super-human training regimen for the 2011 Death Race (since renamed the Spartan Death Race), an insanely cruel competition of strength and endurance. Competitors are not told when the race will begin or end, how long it will last or what kind of body- and soul-destroying tasks they will have to complete. Very few people finish.

Allentuck lasted 10.5 hours before he was done in by hypothermia during a three-hour upstream wade in a cold Vermont river. You can read his amazing description of the ad­ven­ture on his blog.

Another local, Frank Fumich of Arlington County, did complete the race. (Based on information provided to me by organizers, I erroneously reported in my original story that Allentuck was the only person from this area participating.)

It took Fumich 40 hours. Forty consecutive hours of running, lifting, wood-chopping, wading, hiking and crawling. Much of the time, he was soaking wet.

Fumich is now training for a triple-Ironman triathlon in October.

 
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