- Research shows that the more time you spend sitting, the shorter and less healthy your life will tend to be, even if you exercise regularly, thanks to the negative impacts on your cardiovascular and metabolic function
- When you sit, lack of muscle contraction decreases blood flow through your body, reducing the efficiency of biological processes
- For every hour you sit, your life expectancy decreases by two hours. Research has also found that sitting for more than three hours a day causes 3.8 percent of all-cause deaths
- Twenty to 25 minutes of walking per day may add anywhere from three to seven years to your life span. As little as two hours of walking per week may also reduce mortality risk in older adults. Brisk walking has even been shown to improve life expectancy in smokers and overweight individuals
- For optimal health, aim to sit less than three hours a day, walk 10,000 to 15,000 steps per day, incorporate the Nitric Oxide Dump exercise into your daily routine. Then, when ready, add a comprehensive workout plan
By Dr. Mercola
Compelling research shows that the more time you spend sitting, the shorter and less healthy your life will tend to be, thanks to the negative impacts on your cardiovascular and metabolic function. Even the World Health Organization lists inactivity as the fourth biggest killer of adults worldwide, responsible for 9 percent of premature deaths.1
For example, one 2012 meta-analysis2 found those who sat the longest on a daily basis were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sat the least. Importantly, findings reveal that prolonged sitting is an independent risk factor for poor health and early death, meaning these risks apply even if you’re fit and maintain a regular workout schedule. For example, one study3found that six hours of uninterrupted sitting effectively counteracted the positive health benefits of a whole hour of exercise.
The answer is clear: To achieve and maintain optimal health, a weekly workout regimen is not enough. You also need to move more throughout each day. In other words, non-exercise movement, sometimes referred to as “nutritional movement,” is just as important, if not more, than working out a couple of times a week. If you’re pressed for time, this is actually great news, as there are countless ways to get more movement into your day that don’t require you to set aside hours to exercise.
How Much Movement Does Your Body Need?
According to many experts, the key is to avoid sitting for more than 50 minutes out of each hour. Ideally, you’d want to sit for a maximum of about three hours a day. This rule of thumb comes from research looking at life in agrarian environments, which found that rural villagers sit, on average, for about three hours a day. If you’re like most, this means you may need to device ways to avoid your chair for several hours each day.
Sound impossible? It’s not. But you need to be patient. A stand-up desk is an excellent workaround for many office workers, but if you’re unused to standing up for extended periods, you may need to work your way into it. Start by standing for 10 minutes every hour or so, and slowly increase the time you spend standing while working.
I personally strive to sit less than an hour a day and usually succeed. This has had the remarkable effect of eliminating persisting back pain that I’ve struggled with for many years, despite treatments from a dozen different clinicians.
The reason sitting is so detrimental to health has to do with the fact that lack of muscle contraction decreases blood flow through your body, thereby reducing the efficiency of biological processes. One study4,5 found that a single hour of sitting impaired blood flow to the main leg artery by as much as 50 percent. On the upside, simply taking a five-minute walk for every hour spent sitting was found to ameliorate the heart disease risks associated with chronic sitting.
Other research shows that within 90 seconds of standing up after sitting for a long period of time, the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol are activated. In other words, as soon as you stand up, a series of molecular mechanisms are triggered that beneficially impact the cellular functioning of your muscles and push fuel into your cells. All of these molecular effects are activated by the simple act of bearing weight on your legs.
In a nutshell, standing rather than sitting appears to be a foundational factor for optimal biological functioning. Biological anthropologists have also noted that evidence from fossil records show trading our nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a more settled agrarian one resulted in less dense bone structure.6 This makes sense, considering weight-bearing exercise is one of the most effective ways to strengthen your bones and avoid osteoporosis.
Sitting Accelerates the Aging Process and Is Detrimental to Cognition
Joan Vernikos,7 Ph.D., former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and author of “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals,” is an expert on the hazards of sitting. In my interview with her, she revealed that sitting prevents your body from interacting with and exerting itself against gravity. While not nearly as severe as the antigravity experienced by astronauts, uninterrupted sitting mimics a microgravity situation, which accelerates the aging process.
Indeed, in one recent study,8 women who sat the longest on a daily basis were found to be, on average, eight years older, biologically speaking, than those who were less sedentary. Other research has shown that for every hour you sit, your life expectancy decreases by two hours.
For comparison, smoking a cigarette cuts your life expectancy by 11 minutes.9 Research10 published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also found that sitting for more than three hours a day causes 3.8 percent of all-cause deaths in the 54 countries surveyed.
Physical movements, such as standing up or bending down, increase the force of gravity on your body, which counteracts the cellular degeneration that occurs when sitting. In recent years, many other researchers and health experts have also started emphasizing the importance of nutritional movement such as standing and walking. As noted by Katy Bowman,11 scientist and author of “Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement:”
“Walking is a superfood. It’s the defining movement of a human. It’s a lot easier to get movement than it is to get exercise. Actively sedentary is a new category of people who are fit for one hour but sitting around the rest of the day. You can’t offset 10 hours of stillness with one hour of exercise.”
In addition to shutting down molecular processes in your muscles and tissues, chronic sitting also takes a toll on your brain. According to Dan Pardi, a researcher with the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and the departments of neurology and endocrinology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, muscle activity acts as a stimulus to keep your brain alert. When you sit and stop using your muscles, your brain may follow suit.
Productivity studies seem to confirm this link. In one, a call center increased sales by $40 million over a six-month period after employees switched to standing workstations — and this was with standing for only 1.5 hours a day, not all day.12 A study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports also revealed that in first grade boys, lower levels of physical activity and longer sitting time were linked to poorer reading skills.13
Make Walking a Part of Your Daily Routine
I believe the combination of high-intensity training, non-exercise activities like walking and avoiding sitting whenever possible is the key to optimal fitness and enjoying a healthy, pain-free life. I recommend walking in addition to your regular fitness regimen, not as a replacement for it, but if you’re currently doing nothing in terms of a fitness regimen, walking is certainly a great place to start.
Walking may be particularly beneficial for Type 2 diabetics. Recent research14 shows Type 2 diabetics who sit all day (rising only for bathroom breaks) have much riskier blood fat profiles than those who get up and move for three minutes every 30 minutes. Lead author Megan Grace, Ph.D., and senior research officer at Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, told Reuters:15
“Our study showed that breaks which include either simple resistance exercise or light walking were generally equally beneficial in reducing blood lipids. Our current findings reinforce the message that avoiding prolonged periods of sitting, and finding ways to increase activity across the day, is beneficial for health.
In line with the recent American Diabetes Association Position Statement, we recommend interrupting sitting every 30 minutes with a few minutes of light intensity activity, in addition to regularly taking part in a structured exercise program … Stand up, sit less and move more — particularly after meals.”
Walking Is Good Medicine for All
The elderly and those struggling with chronic disease that prevents them from engaging in more strenuous fitness regimens would also do well to consider walking more. While often underestimated, studies show you can reap significant health benefits from it. For example:
- Walking 2 miles a day or more can cut your chances of hospitalization from a severe episode of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by about half16,17
- Walking has also been shown to reduce the risk of stroke in men over 60. Walking for one to two hours a day cut a man’s stroke risk by as much as one-third, and it didn’t matter how brisk the pace was. Taking a three-hour walk each day slashed the risk by two-thirds18
- Twenty to 25 minutes of walking per day may add anywhere from three to seven years to your life span19
- As little as two hours of walking per week may also reduce mortality risk in older adults, compared to inactivity. Meeting or exceeding the activity guidelines of 2.5 hours of moderate activity per week in the form of walking lowered all-cause mortality by 20 percent20
- Research published in 2012 found brisk walking improved life expectancy even in those who are overweight.21 Smokers may also increase their life span by nearly four years by taking regular walks22
The Nitric Oxide ‘Dump’ — A Revolutionary Workout Strategy
Fitness science is getting more and more focused on efficiency — gone are the days when fitness was thought to require several hours of running each week. Research reveals that by maximizing efficiency you can dramatically reduce the amount of time needed to stay fit and healthy. The Nitric Oxide Dump is one such revolutionary exercise. This four-minute workout, done three times a day, capitalizes on your body’s release of nitric oxide, which plays an important role in muscle development and growth.
It’s hard to believe, but in those few minutes, you can get the same benefits as if you’d worked out in the gym for an hour. The exercise was developed by Dr. Zach Bush, whose triple-board certification includes expertise in internal medicine, endocrinology and metabolism. According to Bush, the workout is anaerobically efficient and the more you do it, the better it works. This short series of exercises could be called a new version of high-intensity interval training.
Above, I demonstrate a slightly modified version of this exercise. Start with three sets of 10 repetitions, incrementally increasing your reps until you’re doing 20 reps for each exercise. At the end, you’ll have completed 240 movements. Here’s an important stipulation, however: As you exercise, don’t breathe through your mouth. Keep your mouth closed and breathe only through your nose as this helps keep your carbon dioxide levels in the healthy range.
What This Four-Minute Workout Can Do for You
While intended to be done about three times a day, you’ll want to wait for at least two hours in between sessions, because that’s how long it takes for nitric oxide to synthesize in your body for subsequent release and optimal benefit. Nitric oxide is a soluble gas and free radical stored in the lining or endothelium of your blood vessels that can catalyze and promote health. For example, nitric oxide:
- Dilates your blood vessels, which can help lower your blood pressure
- Improves immune function
- Thins your blood and decreases its viscosity, which helps lower your risk of platelet aggregation that can result in a heart attack or stroke, two common causes of death
- Is a powerful anabolic stimulus that can help you increase lean body mass, which in turn triggers your body to burn more fat. Nitric oxide feeds your muscles, and the reason your muscles start to ache when exercising is because you’re running out of oxygen. Nitric oxide is released to make up for this lack. Once it moves through your bloodstream, your blood vessels dilate to deliver more oxygen and nutrients, resulting in muscle growth
Bush explains the revolutionary theory behind the Nitric Oxide Dump as follows:23
“Our blood vessels actually only store about 90 seconds’ worth of nitric oxide before they need to manufacture more, so working each major muscle group out for 90 seconds gives you the most efficient workout to tone and build muscles.The body has the ability to regenerate nitric oxide every couple of hours, giving you the opportunity to release it multiple times a day. What that means is the most effective way to increase your muscle function is to work out very briefly every few hours.”
Standing, Walking and High-Intensity Exercise — An Excellent Combo for Health
The take-home message is that while regular workouts are important for optimal health, they cannot sufficiently compensate for the damage incurred if you’re still sitting for hours on end. So, perhaps the most important strategy to protect your health is simply avoid sitting as much as possible. It is at that point that all the extra exercise you do will really start to pay off. If you’re currently sedentary, following this step-by-step progression into greater amounts of physical activity will likely do wonders for your health and well-being:
- Start by reducing your sitting to three hours or less per day. A stand-up desk can help you achieve this goal. For additional tips and tricks to get more movement into your workday, see “Tips for Staying Active in the Office.” Remember, you likely need to work your way into increasingly longer periods of standing, so be patient with yourself. Don’t give up and abandon the practice altogether just because you cannot stand for eight hours straight
- Add more walking into your day, with the ultimate aim of walking 10,000 to 15,000 steps daily. A fitness tracker can be helpful to measure your progress
- Incorporate the Nitric Oxide Dump into your daily routine. It’s one of the best ways to start toning your body’s systems, and it’s free. Ideal times could be first thing in the morning and again in the evening, after work. Depending on your situation, you might be able to do a third set during your lunch hour. It doesn’t really matter what you’re wearing, as long as your clothing allows you to move freely
- Once you’re walking and doing the Nitric Oxide Dump regularly and you feel ready to do more, devise a well-rounded fitness routine that incorporates other types of exercises. To get you started, see my free online Peak Fitness Plan
If you’re elderly, infirm or have severe mobility challenges due to some other condition, give some thought to how you can move about more. Do what you can each day.
Something is always better than nothing. For guidance, please see the following articles: “Exercises for Those With Limited Mobility,” “Basic Exercise Guide for Seniors and the Infirm,” and “Easy Strength Training Moves for Seniors.” And, for a shot of inspiration, proving it’s never too late to start, be sure to check out “Superstar Seniors Exercise Well Into Their Golden Years.”