Sitzen ist das neue Rauchen!? Wie ein sitzender Lebensstil unsere Gesundheit bedroht.

Sitting is the new smoking! How a sedentary lifestyle threatens our health

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Richard Staudner

The Optimizer

Reading time: approx. 12 min

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In today's fast-paced world, where professional activities are increasingly carried out in a seated position at a desk, we are faced with a particular challenge: the sedentary lifestyle. Data from a US university shows that administrative staff spend an average of 73.2% and teachers 58.5% of their working time sitting down. If sitting time during leisure time and, for example, on train or car journeys is also included, many people quickly exceed the 50% mark of sitting time in their everyday lives. Further scientific research has shown that excessive sitting time is associated with a variety of health problems, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.   

If we also take into account the 7-8 hours of sleep per night, this leaves only a few hours for activities in which we stand, walk or otherwise engage in physical activity. This information underlines the urgent need to adapt our lifestyle for better health and more movement in order to sustainably improve our health and well-being. To counteract the negative consequences of a predominantly sedentary lifestyle, it is crucial to recognize and integrate the importance of regular movement breaks and moderate physical activity into our daily lives. In the following sections of this article, we will go into more detail about the specific findings from relevant and exciting studies that address this topic. This will enable us to develop a deeper understanding of the problem and the resulting solutions. That's why at the end of this article you'll also find our top 10 tips for a more active lifestyle and less unhealthy sitting time. 

Prolonged sitting leads to metabolic problems and diseases 

In a fascinating study centered around everyday activity, the researchers delved into the world of type 2 diabetes, a disease that unfortunately affects many millions of people. They focused on an everyday aspect of modern life: sitting. Their aim was to understand how different patterns of sitting and short activity breaks can affect blood glucose control. The study participants were divided into three groups and placed in a controlled environment where their daily activities were closely monitored. 

The participants in the first group had to sit continuously, which the researchers used as a control condition. In the second group, the participants interrupted their sitting time every 30 minutes with short and light activities. The third group followed a similar approach, but with activity breaks every 60 minutes. What the researchers discovered was remarkable. They found that interrupting sitting time - even with short bursts of activity - resulted in a significant improvement in blood sugar control. This effect was particularly pronounced when sitting time was interrupted every 30 minutes.

Blood glucose control means that the concentration of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream is effectively kept within a healthy range. This is particularly important for people with diabetes, as their bodies have difficulty regulating blood sugar levels naturally. For diabetics, improved blood sugar control can be achieved through a combination of dietary changes, regular physical activity, weight management and, if necessary, medication. Stable blood sugar helps to reduce the risk of serious health problems that can result from uncontrolled blood sugar levels.

But blood sugar control is also very important for non-diabetics. A stable blood sugar level helps to keep energy levels constant, avoid food cravings and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases. These findings have far-reaching implications. They show that small changes in daily behavior, such as getting up and moving regularly, can play a significant role in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes. It is a message of hope and potential, showing that everyone can influence their health status through their behavior. 

In another important study, 24 people with type 2 diabetes who were inactive and either overweight or obese were examined. They took part in three different tests, each lasting seven hours and separated by breaks of 6 to 14 days. In these tests, participants were asked to either (1) sit continuously, (2) break their sitting time every 30 minutes with three minutes of light walking, or (3) break every 30 minutes with simple exercises such as squats and calf raises. The results showed that both the short walk and the exercises controlled blood glucose levels significantly better over 22 hours than continuous sitting. Impressively, this positive effect lasted into the night and the next morning, indicating a sustained improvement in blood glucose regulation.

Long periods of sitting and the negative consequences for the cardiovascular system

Another remarkable study from 2007 sheds light on how our sitting habits and the resulting lower energy consumption not only influence type 2 diabetes, but also have a significant impact on cardiovascular disease in particular. The researchers focused on the metabolic effects and found that prolonged sitting leads to obesity and metabolic syndrome, but also harms the heart. 

The study makes an interesting distinction: it separates the negative effects of physical inactivity in everyday life from the positive effects of structured fitness training. It is particularly emphasized that the energy consumption due to everyday non-exercise activities (NEAT) often accounts for a larger proportion of total energy consumption than the training itself. This suggests that regular, short movements throughout the day that lead to muscle contractions are essential to disrupt harmful molecular signals that could otherwise lead to metabolic disease. This makes an active lifestyle that includes regular breaks from sitting time of crucial importance. 

A key finding of the study is the role of the enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which is important for controlling triglyceride breakdown, HDL cholesterol and other metabolic risk factors. The researchers found that everyday standing and walking had a greater effect on the activity of this enzyme than an intensive training session. This also means that an inactive day at the office cannot be compensated for with an evening fitness workout. Again, you basically need an active daily routine!

Swiss researchers have provided exciting insights into the effects of a sedentary lifestyle on our arteries. They show how little exercise and too much sitting can make our arteries stiffer and affect blood pressure. The study found that more exercise leads to healthier blood vessels. This is measured by biomarkers such as the speed of blood flow and the way blood waves flow through the vessels. These measurements help to assess the risk of cardiovascular disease, similar to cholesterol levels or other factors. The researchers emphasize that an active lifestyle - that is, regular exercise - is important to promote arterial health and reduce the risk of heart disease. They point out that even small changes, such as taking frequent breaks from prolonged sitting, can make a big difference to our health

How standing desks can change activity levels in schools and protect against illness

Exciting innovations in elementary school could set the course for a healthier future for our children: The 2021 "Stand Out in Class" study investigated how standing desks in classrooms affect students' activity and sitting behavior. Conducted in eight elementary school, this pilot study brought about a remarkable change: instead of just sitting, children were now able to switch between sitting and standing. Interestingly, all participating children wore devices that recorded their movements and sitting times during and after school. The results? Students in classes with dynamic desks spent significantly less time sitting and more time standing and moving slightly - without compensating for more sitting after school during free time! The general level of activity could thus simply be raised. 

This not only shows that such desks can effectively change sitting behavior, but also that children learn to be more active in their everyday lives through this measure. In the long term, this could have a significant impact: By helping children develop more active behavior at an early age, the risk of diseases such as diabetes or heart problems in adulthood could be reduced. A promising step towards health promotion and prevention, starting in the classroom.

Less sitting at work for healthier employees

A change in the workplace can also bring great benefits for us adults, as an impressive study from England shows. The SMArt study, conducted by the Diabetes Research Centre in Leicester, looked at the importance of sitting behavior in the workplace. In this groundbreaking study, employees of a National Health Service Trust were divided into two groups: One group was given height-adjustable desks, while the other kept their traditional desks. But it was about more than just new furniture. The group with the adjustable desks received extensive support: informative seminars, guidance on healthy sitting and standing habits, feedback on their behavior, motivational posters, help with goal setting and self-monitoring, and regular coaching sessions.

This comprehensive approach shows that it is not enough to simply swap desks. Rather, it is crucial to provide people with the necessary information, motivation and support. That way, they can really change their habits and reap the benefits of a more active working style. The study makes it clear that such a holistic approach in the workplace can not only improve employees' health, but also increase their overall satisfaction and productivity.

The results of the SMArt study are particularly impressive. After one year, the participants in the intervention group were able to reduce their sitting time at work by an average of 83 minutes per day - a change that was not only short-term, but also established itself in the medium and long term. What is even more remarkable is that this change not only affected physical well-being. The study also showed positive effects on employees' mental health, including increased work performance, increased engagement, less job fatigue and improved general wellbeing.

This success was not achieved by replacing desks alone, but through a combination of ergonomic aids, informative support and motivational elements. The study makes it clear that a holistic approach, which takes into account not only the physical but also the mental aspects of work, contributes significantly to the success of such interventions. Deep learning is the motto! The study shows how important it is to design the working environment in such a way that it actively promotes the health and well-being of employees - a valuable guide for future workplace designs.

While the SMArt study shows how successful changes in the workplace can be when they are comprehensive and well supported, there are also cases where such measures encounter obstacles. This is illustrated by the 2021 'Sit Less at Work' study, which looks at the challenges of implementing initiatives to reduce sitting time in the workplace. In this study, three different organizations were selected to carry out the interventions. The researchers investigated how faithfully the organizations followed the guidelines and what barriers and facilitating factors there were, based on data from online questionnaires, objective measures of sitting time and focus group interviews.

Interestingly, it turned out that in none of the organizations could the measures be implemented as planned and there was no consistent reduction in sitting time. Key barriers included high workloads, ingrained habits of sitting, competing priorities, lack of management commitment and confusion about who is responsible for changing behaviors. These findings clearly show that successful implementation of such initiatives requires more than just a directive from the top. Effective change requires comprehensive organizational adjustments that involve the commitment of all levels of management and employees and aim to fundamentally change the corporate culture and associated social norms. 

Promoting mental health with exercise in stressful times 

In a fascinating 2021 study conducted in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers in the UK have uncovered an important link: How does our exercise behavior during lockdown affect our mental health? The study involved 284 people who reported on their physical activity, sitting time and mental health.

The results were very revealing, but hardly surprising. It turned out that prolonged sitting - i.e. many hours a day without much movement - was directly linked to an increase in symptoms of depression. What was particularly remarkable was that even regular exercise and sport could not compensate for the negative effect of sitting so much in everyday life. Those who sat for less than 8 hours a day and did little, moderate or a lot of exercise had significantly lower levels of depressive symptoms. It is not only the total time spent sitting, but also sitting for long periods at a time that is a problem for our health. 

This study strongly emphasizes that regular exercise breaks and an active lifestyle, especially during mentally stressful times such as lockdown or prolonged illness, are essential to maintain our mental health. While exercise and sport are important, they cannot fully compensate for the negative effects of prolonged sitting. These findings point the way to effective preventative healthcare and emphasize how crucial the design of our daily lives is for long-term mental health.

Conclusion on sitting and its risks to our health

Having looked in depth at a variety of studies on sitting behavior and its impact on health, it's clear that the way we go about our daily lives has far-reaching effects on our wellbeing. From the importance of short activity breaks at school to the impact of sitting breaks on blood glucose control in type 2 diabetes, the studies provide us with valuable insights.

In summary, this research shows that regular exercise and breaking up long periods of sitting are key factors in improving metabolic health and reducing cardiovascular risk. The finding that even small changes in daily behavior - such as getting up regularly and engaging in short periods of physical activity - can have significant health benefits is particularly encouraging.

These studies illustrate that being more aware of our daily routines, especially in terms of physical activity and sitting habits, is a key element for better health and prevention of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They offer practical approaches and inspiration to be more active in school, work and home environments and thus contribute to your own long-term health.

Let's go into practice - what can you do in everyday life to reduce your sitting time?

  1. Hourly exercise breaks: Take a short break every hour to get up and move around. Just a few minutes of walking or stretching can be helpful.
  1. Standing workstations: If possible, use a standing desk or improvise one by placing your laptop on a high table or a pile of books.
  1. Integrate walks: Try to incorporate short walks into your daily routine, for example during phone calls or during your lunch break.
  1. Stairs instead of elevator: Use the stairs instead of the elevator to increase your daily exercise.
  1. Set reminders: Use reminders on your phone or computer to remind you to get up and move regularly.
  1. Stand-up meetings: Hold meetings standing up or during a walk to avoid long periods of sitting.
  1. Activity tracker: Use an activity tracker or app to count your daily steps and set exercise goals.
  1. Active leisure activities: Choose active activities such as cycling, hiking or dancing in your free time instead of sedentary hobbies.
  1. Use public transportation: Stand on buses or trains instead of sitting to increase your active time.
  1. Domestic activities: Incorporate more movement into everyday tasks, such as talking on the phone, walking around, doing light exercise while watching TV or being more active around the house.

These tips are easy to implement and can help to minimize the negative effects of a predominantly sedentary lifestyle. It's about seeing movement as a natural part of everyday life and creating regular activities that break up sitting.

Energetic greetings
Richard Staudner
The Optimizer


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