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Sitting all day is killing you - here’s what to do about it

About a year ago, Erin Michos, MD, a cardiologist and marathoner, thought she was making all the right moves to stave off heart disease. In addition to eating a healthy diet, the 42-year-old associate director of preventative cardiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine was going to the gym at five o’clock each morning and logging serious miles with her running club on the weekends.

Then she decided to wear an activity tracker to see how many steps she was taking each day, assuming she’d be golden. “I was shocked,” says Michos. “I’m a runner, and I’d pat myself on the back for that exercise I was getting every morning. But what I learned is that I was sitting for the rest of the day — and that can lead to big problems despite the time I was spending working out.”

In fact, new research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that sitting for long chunks of time throughout the day not only leads to disease, but may also negate some of the benefits of the exercise you are doing. In a review of 43 studies, researchers found that people who sit for eight or nine hours a day have a 14 per cent increased risk of cardiovascular disease, are 13 per cent more likely to get a cancer diagnosis, and are 91 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes. Not only that, but staying sedentary for that many hours of the day—even if you exercise—leads to a 10 per cent greater risk of early death. (That risk jumps to 40 per cent if you don’t hit the gym.)

Starting to worry that you need to ditch your desk job or kiss your nightly couch-time goodbye? There’s no need to take such drastic measures, says Michos: “You don’t have to replace sitting with vigorous activity. Just replace two minutes of sitting with two minutes of walking or some other low-intensity movement and you’ll get benefits.”

Here are top tips from Michos for sneaking in this extra exercise throughout your day:

1. Set an alarm. It can be easy to get caught up in work or a favourite TV show and completely forget to move for hours at a time. So, set your phone or watch so it pings you every hour, reminding you to stand up, stretch, and take a short walk. If that isn’t realistic, consider adding a 15-minute walk to your morning, lunch, and evening routines.

2. Remember that housework and gardening counts.Research shows that light to moderate activity—even a leisurely stroll for coffee with a co-worker, watering the flowers in your backyard, or vacuuming your living room—qualifies as health-boosting movement.

3. Hold “walking meetings.”When Michos meets with her team, they stroll the halls of the hospital rather than gathering in a conference room. If the weather is nice, they even walk-and-talk outside. “As long as we don’t need to be looking at something on a computer, we walk,” she says.

4. Look for creative ways to take more steps. Rather than sending an e-mail to a colleague, walk over to her desk to ask your question. If you usually park as close as possible to the front door of your office or the grocery store, park in the back so you have to walk farther. Start a new nighttime ritual of an after-dinner walk with your family. It’s amazing how many opportunities you can find to sneak in more steps when you look for them.

5. Track yourself. Wearing an activity tracker—or even a simple pedometer—is a great way to monitor how much movement you’re actually getting and to motivate yourself to move more if you’re falling short of your goal. Michos recommends aiming for 10,000 steps a day.

6. Invest in a standing desk. If work keeps you tied to a computer, setting up your work station so that you can stand for chunks of time throughout the day can be very beneficial. However, be careful not to stand too much. Michos recommends following the “20-8-2” rule: for every 20 minutes of sitting, stand for 8 minutes and move for 2 minutes.

7. Rethink your nighttime TV habit. Consider this: A 2003 study of more than 50,000 women followed over the course of six years found that each two-hour increase in daily TV viewing led to a 23 per cent jump in obesity. Even if you’re not worried about your weight, anyone who’s ever gotten sucked into a Netflix binge knows how challenging it can be to take a break from a show. So, preset the timer on your TV to automatically turn off every hour to prompt you to get up and move, or commit to getting off the couch after an episode ends and before another begins. 

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