People who sit for prolonged periods of time may have a higher risk of mortality and several age-related diseases—even if they exercise—according to a new meta-analysis reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The authors of the meta-analysis searched the scientific literature and found 47 high-quality, relevant observational studies. After pooling the data, the authors found that individuals who sat for long periods of time had a 24 percent higher risk of death, 14 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease, 13 percent higher risk of cancer, and 91 percent higher risk of type 2 diabetes. These risks were seen even in people who exercised and those with a healthy body weight.
So should you make changes in your life based on this research While scientists know more about the risks of sedentary behavior than the effectiveness of strategies to reduce it, less sitting is an intuitive choice. For those of us whose jobs require prolonged physical inactivity, standing desks or treadmill desks are a possible option. Some small clinical trials have examined the effects of changing to standing desk or treadmill desk. Standing desks appear to have little impact on most measures of health although one trial has reported an increase in the "good" HDL cholesterol. Changing to a treadmill desk has more positive impact, but may be more challenging to implement in the workplace. Unfortunately, since we don't yet understand how prolonged sitting might damage the body over time, we cannot easily measure whether a change in lifestyle can protect against the damage.
Standing desks can also have negative health impacts. Research has found that prolonged standing has risks such as chronic venous insufficiency and varicose veins, pain in the lower back and feet, and preterm birth. The safest option may be to periodically switch between standing to sitting during the work day.
More research is clearly needed to understand how best to safely and feasibly avoid the potential dangers of prolonged sitting in the face of societal constraints such as office jobs and commuting by car. Nevertheless, this new meta-analysis reinforces the importance of lifestyle as the first line of defense against brain aging.
Dr. Penny Dacks was previously the Director of Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation. She was trained in neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the University of Arizona, and Queen's University (Canada) with individual fellowships from the National Institute of Health, the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Research Foundation, the ARCS Foundation and the Hilda and Preston Davis Foundation. She has authored over 18 peer-reviewed scientific articles and is a member of the Society for Neuroscience, the Gerontological Society of America, the Endocrine Society and the Association for Women in Science.
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