Why Sitting Could Be Harmful to Your Heart Health

February 27, 2019

Malinda Meadows

If you are reading this article while sitting down, your heart health may be at risk.

Poor diet, smoking, obesity, and stress have long been associated risk factors for a variety of diseases that affect your heart.

Studies now show that prolonged sitting could also be detrimental to the long-term health of your heart.

In fact, people who sit for more than nine or 10 hours a day – like those of us who work office jobs or spend our days behind computer screens - are still prone to heart disease and diabetes, even if we exercise.

The good news? Heart disease is preventable once we understand its mechanisms as well as make a conscious effort to adjust our sitting habits, even when we face a barrage of back-to-back meetings or long hours hunched over our computers.

What exactly is heart disease?

The term heart disease describes a range of conditions that affect the heart. The most common type of heart disease is called coronary artery disease, or CAD.

The coronary arteries are the blood vessels that supply blood to your heart.

Over time plaque (fatty deposits within your blood) can clog blood vessels.

As plaque builds up, the wall of the blood vessels become thicker and narrows the channel, which then reduces the amount of blood flow passing through the blood vessels.

When these blood vessels become fully blocked, it cuts off blood supply to your heart, and a heart attack occurs.

Plaque can also break away from its site of formation and travel to the brain blocking blood supply, which results in a stroke.

According to the Center for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, and about 630,000 Americans die from heart disease each year.

How is sitting damaging our hearts?

According to the article, Excessive Sitting and Cardiovascular Disease,  “Excessive sitting slows the metabolism, burning approximately 50 fewer calories per hour than standing, which reduces your body's ability to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, and metabolize fat, as well as causing weaker muscles and bones.”

When muscles burn less fat, it allows fatty acids to more easily clog the heart, posing the risk a heart attack or stroke.

The idea that there might be a link between worsening health outcomes and time spent sitting first became apparent much earlier though.

In the 1950s, one study analyzed the heart health of bus drivers who spent their days sitting for prolonged periods of time compared to their more active bus conductor colleagues.

The results showed that the non-sedentary colleagues had a lower risk of coronary artery disease and obesity.

Later, in 2011, one of the most extensive research studies analyzing sedentary behaviors in the development of heart disease was conducted in the UK with staggering results.

With 800,000 participants enrolled, it compared those who sat often with those who sat less, with the results demonstrating that a sedentary lifestyle plays a significant role in our heart health.

The study found that, compared to the shortest time spent sedentary, the longest time spent sedentary was associated with an

  • 147% increase in cardiovascular events
  • 90% increase in death due to cardiovascular events
  • 112% increase in risk of diabetes
  • 49% increase in death due to any cause

Yet, even if you reach the recommended amount of exercise per week, but you sit for extended period of time, some researchers believe that even exercise isn’t enough to counteract these prolonged periods of sitting at work.

So how do we take care of our hearth health when we have sedentary jobs and exercise alone isn’t enough?

Changing how we work

In order to counter a sedentary lifestyle, especially one that is influenced by our line of work, the Department of Health and Human Services first recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity.

But we can’t just stop there.

"Even if you do a half an hour or an hour or of exercise every day doesn't give us the reassurance that sitting for the other 23 hours is OK. In fact, it's not," said Dr. David Alter of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, a researcher who published a systemic review about the effects of sedentary time on our heart health.

This type of lifestyle is referred to as an “active couch potato,” meaning people who meet their recommended exercise requirements but spend a lot of time sitting, usually because they have sedentary desk jobs.

While our ancestors may have been more likely to work physically demanding jobs, with the increase of technology-driven fields and more office jobs, the current working day may provide little opportunity for exercise and what results are periods of prolonged sitting.

Breaking up those prolonged sedentary periods is one of the easiest ways to start improving our heart health.

Experts recommend taking breaks from sitting at your desk every hour to stand up or go for a short walk. If you are strapped for time, standing desks are excellent resources that easily allow you to adjust your position without hindering your workflow, like the variety of adjustable desks available at FlexiSpot.

Additionally, when entire offices invest in standing desks, organizing ‘standing meetings’ could be hugely beneficial to those who have a plethora of meetings every day.

Standing desks also allow for mobility when necessary. These are beneficial for walking meetings as well as incidences when you need computer access but also the ability to move from room to room, such as physicians and practitioners conducting morning rounds of their patients.

Other common heart health practices that are easily adopted include taking the stairs over the elevator and parking further from the office.

In addition to the recommended exercise as well as a proper healthy diet, these small steps to minimize the amount of time spent sitting in the workplace could lead to beneficial changes to our heart health and overall wellness.

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