As a physiotherapist I am well aware of the effects on a joint that has been immobilized in a cast for several weeks or the deconditioning that results from weeks or months of bed rest due to illness. Last week I was listening to the CBC radio station and there was an excellent interview conducted by Anna Maria Tremonti with a medical doctor named Mike Evans. Doctor Evans spoke about relatively new research which is shining a light on another major contributor to obesity and heart disease – the Sitting Disease. Doctor Evans has a campaign and an excellent YouTube video which encourages people to make their day a little harder. Like many researchers into obesity, diabetes, and heart disease Dr. Evans points out that when you look at middle-aged and younger people living in the 1960's and 1970's, they were rarely overweight by more than 5 pounds. With our current state of ballooning rates of obesity and diabetes in all age ranges, it begs the question, “What was different then compared to now?”

The easy answer is to say that we are not as active and we consume too many calories. While this is most certainly true, it is worth noting that there is a new group of people who are overweight yet follow the recommendations of getting sixty minutes of exercise everyday and watch their caloric intake. In fact, in the sport of triathlons, it is estimated that one third of all recreational triathletes are overweight! People researching the Sitting Disease tell us that even if you are exercising 60 minutes a day before or after work, a sedentary work life puts you at the same risk for diabetes as the person not exercising at all! Researchers have found that no matter how active people are, most of us sit for nine hours a day. It sees exercise does not change the overall time spent sitting. Genevieve Healy, Ph.D., coined the term “active couch potato” to describe people who exercise regularly and then sit most of the day at work.

What is clear is that our bodies are meant to be moving. We have not yet evolved to sit in our car to commute to work to sit at work to sit during lunch to again sit in our cars only to get home to sit at the dinner table and finally relax while sitting in front of the television. Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., says that when we sit our metabolic rates slow down and our sugar burning ability slows down leading to chronically elevated blood sugars. A recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology reports that a man who sits more than 6 hours a day has an 18% increased risk of dying from a heart attack and a 7.8% increased risk of dying from diabetes! It is clear that exercise is good for us but if we then spend 6 or more hours a day sitting, it completely negates the benefit. A 12 year study of 17,000 Canadians found that the more people sat, the earlier they died and this was regardless of: age, body weight, or how much they practiced. Adding to the weight of evidence of the perils of the Sitting Disease is that a key gene which causes clotting of blood and inflammation of the cardiovascular system is almost shut off when you sit for a couple of hours and even more startingling is that this gene is not turned on with exercise if you sit most of the day!

So when we look back at pictures of people from the 1970's and earlier and we notice how svelte they are, we have to wonder if the fact is that sitting less made all the difference. While it is tempting to consider the culprit to be consuming too many carbohydrates or too many soft drinks, it might be that the truth is a little harder to bear. It might be that as Doctor Mike Evans tells us, “We need to make our days a little harder.” Instead of emailing the person down the hall, try the 1980's style of getting up and going to talk to that person. Maybe instead of driving to the store to pick up a bottle of wine, consider walking. Perhaps the French paradox is simply that the French move around a bit more?

I find this research on the Sitting Disease computing. As someone who sits at least 6 or 7 hours a day, I am concerned enough where I have decided to change my work environment and home environment. I have now started reading while spinning on my exercise bike instead of sitting in a comfy chair and I am going to try one of those goofy exercise bike / desks – it can not hurt? I suppose the easiest way to deal with this at work is to simply stand every 30 minutes or so. If the bike / desk is too difficult to use with my computer, I may try just setting an alarm to go off every 30 minutes. I will keep you updated on this latest experiment.