What’s wrong with sitting too long? Early death, according to researchers

People who mostly sit at work have a 16 per cent higher risk of death from all causes than those who mostly stand and walk around, according to a new study. They also have a 34 per cent higher risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease.

But leaving a desk for walk breaks and exercising for an extra 15 to 30 minutes per day could offset the risk, the study, which followed nearly 500,000 people in Taiwan over 13 year periods, found.

“The serious risks associated with prolonged occupational sitting can be mitigated by incorporating regular breaks and engaging in additional physical activity,” the researchers in Taiwan and the United States said.

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“Systemic changes, such as more frequent breaks, standing desks, designated workplace areas for physical activity and gym membership benefits, can help reduce risk,” they wrote in an article published in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Network Open on January 19.

The World Health Organization recommends limiting sedentary time and being physically active for good health. The UN health agency says prolonged sitting can increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes.

In their study, researchers analysed data collected from people with full-time employment over the age of 20 who were part of an annual or biannual health check-up programme in Taiwan between 1996 and 2017. The analysis excluded people with pre-existing cardiovascular disease diagnoses.

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In questionnaires given during each check up, participants had been asked if they were “mostly sitting, mostly sitting and standing while performing repetitive motions in the course of work [or] standing and walking around most of the time”.

Over the 13-year period, the study recorded more than 26,000 deaths, 57 per cent of which happened to people who said they mostly sat at work. Sixty per cent of the deaths in that “mostly sitting” group – around 3,200 – were related to cardiovascular disease, the study found.

Lead author Wayne Gao, an associate professor of the College of Public Health at Taipei Medical University, said simple steps could reduce the health risks of sitting for too long.

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“People should break up prolonged sitting by getting moving regularly. Hourly reminders on the phone to take 300 to 500 steps are helpful,” he said.

“Outside work, walking instead of driving or taking public transport to a destination not too far away is a good way to increase the level of physical activity.”

The team also said employers could designate break times for office staff and areas for leisure-time physical activity, as well as organise group activities, to help workers stay active.

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