The Downside of Sitting Still

While in many ways modern technology has made life easier and added a new level of comfort to our lives, it has also had some unintended consequences. Among the most dangerous of these consequences is that Americans are more sedentary than ever.

Sitting in front of a screen for hours has become the norm, making it crucial to take a look at how this inactivity affects us personally and society as a whole.

Sedentary Lifestyles Affect Almost Everyone

Sedentary habits start early. In fact, Vijay R. Varma from the National Institute on Aging and fellow researchers found that teenagers today are as inactive as 60-year-olds. Today’s teens are basically sedentary, which is especially problematic because young adulthood has historically been a time of increased physical activity. After 30, physical activity tends to level off.

But if today’s sedentary teens grow up to be sedentary 30-year-olds, they will be setting themselves a low—and unhealthy—baseline for physical activity.

To be sure, it’s not just teenagers that are less active than they used to be. Sedentary lifestyles are affecting North Americans of all demographics. Marc Hamilton and his fellow researchers from the University of Houston explain that it is time for a “movement movement” across generations.

“Sedentary lifestyles throughout the lifespan have become the norm, including inactive youth and a sedentary workforce,” they explain. “Preventable chronic diseases caused by sedentary living have both lowered the quality of life for those directly affected or their families, and have created an unsustainable economic dilemma.”

The Link Between Inactivity and Premature Cellular Aging

Research has shown that people with shorter telomeres—aka protective end caps on each strand of DNA—are considered biologically “older” than peers with long, healthy telomeres.

Dr. Immaculata De Vivo of Harvard Medical School explains that each time a cell splits, the telomeres become a little shorter. However, lifestyle factors—such as a person’s level of physical activity—can change how often this split occurs, in turn contributing to longer or shorter telomeres.

Nicole C. Arsenis and fellow researchers likewise explore the link between physical activity and cellular aging. Arsenis et al. conclude that physical activity is one of the key components to maintaining cellular-level vitality, especially in middle-aged adults and people with chronic illness. “Physical activity and exercise may have both protective and restorative effects, and as such, show great potential to improve well-being and increase longevity,” they conclude.

The flipside of the inactivity-telomere relationship is also true: sedentary lifestyle habits make us age more quickly and rob us of our energy, especially later in life.

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego found clear evidence of this, Ana Sandoiu reports. The research team, led by Aladdin Shadyab, Ph.D., studied a group of nearly 1,500 women whose average age was 79. The cells of the sedentary participants—that is, those who exercised for less than 40 minutes per day and spent at least 10 hours per day doing something inactive—were biologically 8 years older than the cells of the participants’ active peers.

“Discussions about the benefits of exercise should start when we are young, and physical activity should continue to be part of our daily lives as we get older, even at 80 years old,” Shadyab says.

What Sedentary Living Does to Different Parts of the Body

Studies increasingly show a link between sedentary living and chronic conditions. It’s clear that living a mostly inactive life can cause heart problems, mental stress and an increased risk for cancer, among other things.

For example, not getting enough exercise can have seriously damaging—and even deadly—effects on the heart. The Obesity Society and others support a study that suggests that sedentary lifestyles contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus risk, and excess morbidity and mortality.

Simply put, people who are inactive put themselves at greater risk of dying from heart problems.

Being sedentary can also affect your brain—and even your mood. According to Michelle Kilpatrick and her research team, people who spend more time sitting down are more likely to suffer from mental disorders and stress. Her team’s study—of more than 3,000 government-employed adults—found those who spent at least six hours per day sitting down were 90 percent more likely to struggle with mood disorders, even if the person was active outside of working hours. If you have a desk job, consider investing in a standing desk, or simply get up and move throughout the day.

Finally, researchers Daniela Schmid, Ph.D and Graham Colditz, M.D., Dr.P.H., found another worrying side effect of sedentary living: it increases your risk for developing cancer. After conducting a meta-analysis of 43 studies, four million people and tens of thousands of cancer cases, Schmid and Colditz found that being inactive through most of a person’s waking hours can significantly increase their risk for colon, endometrial and lung cancers specifically.

What You Can Do

If you have been living a sedentary life and this research scares you, don’t panic.

Kishan Bakrania and a team at the University of Leicester in England found that people can see substantial health benefits from living an active life, even after years of sedentary living.

Bakrania, who spoke to Medical Daily about the study, says that while these findings emphasize the importance of physical exercise, the effects of inactivity are somewhat reversible. “It shows that people who spend large amounts of time not moving either through work, leisure or lifestyle can counteract some of the negative effects of sedentary behavior by regularly exercising,” Bakrania says.

If you think exercise has to be brutal in order to help fight aging, think again. Here are a few things you can do to fight off the effects of a sedentary life:

  • Start a brisk walking program. Researchers from Montpellier University in France found that just a little regular exercise can have a big impact on people older than 60. In their experiment, the French researchers asked a group of 60 women to commit to 2.5 hours of walking per week for six months. After six months, the participants who began with the lowest baseline—i.e. those least able to endure a brisk walk—had shown the most improvement in conditioning and walking speed.
  • Choose an exercise you enjoy. It’s easier to stick to an exercise plan if you like it. Focus on finding an activity that doesn’t feel like a chore to you.
  • Move every 30 minutes. In a recent study, exercise physiologist Keith Diaz and others found that simply getting up and moving around every half hour reduces the effects of inactivity. In the researchers’ words, the key is “interrupting sedentary time.”
  • Set a timer. It can be easy to get lost in your work, so set a timer to remind you to move around every 30 minutes.

It’s Never Too Late to Start Getting Active

While exercise is an important part of reversing the effects of a sedentary life, it is not the only thing you can do. Combined with a healthy diet and exercise routine, Vitamere™ Anti-Aging Multivitamins can promote a healthy lifespan and actually extend your telomeres.

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