How to quit sitting around and reduce the associated health risks

Leanne Telford expected to be sore after she recently ran the New York Marathon, but she didn’t think that a week later she’d be far more uncomfortable.

“I felt worse after the nine-hour travel day flying home from New York than I did after the marathon. I was more sore,” says the chair of NAIT’s Personal Fitness Trainer program. She was fully recovered from the 42-kilometre run before she boarded the plane.

The cause of her discomfort? Sitting.

The catchphrase “sitting is the new smoking” stems from research that reveals hunkering down at a desk job all day and then spending the evening in front of the TV or computer is linked to health risks, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Telford says we can make some simple changes to our day to help offset the risks.

What’s more, research shows that even regular exercisers should change their sitting habits.

Move more, sit less

“If you’re a regular exerciser, but your job is such that you’re sitting seven, eight hours a day, that exercise doesn’t undo the damage of the prolonged sitting. The negative effects of sitting are just as strong in people who exercise regularly,” says Telford.

That doesn’t mean we should stop exercising. Rather, we need to incorporate regular movement breaks into our day, says Telford. That will require a conscious effort since the average Canadian adult spends about 10 hours a day sitting.

"Exercise doesn’t undo the damage of the prolonged sitting."

“The call is to break up sitting,” explains Telford. “Move more, sit less.”

Movement can be as easy as standing up and doing simple moves, explains Telford, who demonstrates a routine in the video below.

Schedule two minutes of movement every 30 minutes of sitting time, says Telford, or even every 20 minutes. Telford walks her talk. She moves frequently during our interview and estimates she’s on her feet at least six hours during her work day thanks to a standing desk.

Telford says it’s good for adults (18-64 years) to meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines that call for at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week (in bouts of 10 minutes or more), but it’s not enough if you’re sitting at a desk all day.

When we sit for long periods our bodies respond by burning less fat and our circulation decreases, which can allow fatty acids to more easily clog arteries. Other sedentary health risks include muscle degeneration and colon cancer. Research has also found that sitting too much causes a decline in insulin response, which can lead to diabetes.

Getting up and moving your body at regular intervals can help offset those consequences, says Telford.

Afraid you might seem strange if you get up and start moving your body at your desk? Telford suggests sharing what you’re doing and why.

“It should be a culture where challenging that sedentary behaviour is the norm because it’s good for all of us.”

Telford's tips to get moving

Adults should get a minimum 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity weekly (in bouts of 10 minutes or more). Add muscle and bone strengthening activities, such as lifting weights, at least two days a week.

Stand up and move for two minutes every hour; three times is even better.

Consider a standing desk.

Work in activity breaks during your day, such as holding a walking meeting.

Several websites offer fitness break reminders while you’re at the desk. There are also phone apps that will message you to get moving at regular intervals.

Subscribe to receive more great stories every month

Find out more news about NAIT, stories about our alumni and their impact on their communities, and useful how-to content featuring our experts.

Sign up today »