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Sitting at Work is a Heart Attack Risk

Conductors on London busses had 1/3 the heart attack risk of the bus drivers.
Conductors on London buses had 1/3
the heart attack risk of the bus drivers.

Sitting down all day for work just might kill you. It's something researchers have known for decades, but only in the last few years have large scale studies come out to shed more light on the problem.

The groundbreaking study that started it all was published by The Lancet in 1953. Jerry Morris and colleagues studied London Transport Authority bus drivers. The bus CONDUCTORS spent their days standing and climbing up and down the stairs of the double-decker buses while collecting tickets. The bus DRIVERS spent their shifts sitting.

Researchers found that the active conductors had about 1/3 the rate of coronary heart disease events than the seated bus drivers. The pay, benefits, working environment and other socioeconomic conditions were the same. The difference was activity.

The findings kicked off several studies that showed clear heart benefits from more active jobs. But jobs that involved physical labor were in decline. As society became more automated, machines replaced people and the remaining jobs needed little physical exertion.

In the 1970s, the solution was to promote exercise as a way to counter the effects of a sedentary job. Sit all day at work, just grab an hour of exercise before or after. Studies into the effects of active versus passive jobs dropped. But deaths from heart disease continued to climb.

Martina Sitting at a Desk Since 2009, several large-scale studies have come out that re-examined the relationship between how active someone is at work and long-term mortality. What they found is that even among people who regularly exercise, death rates are higher if your job has you sitting all day. Heart attack rates climb for jobs that have you sitting as little as three hours a day.

In 2012 a study was published from van der Ploeg HP of the Sydney School of Public Health. Researchers tracked 222,497 Australian adults for four years. They found that 6.9% of all deaths over that period could be directly attributed to nothing more than sitting. The longer you sat every day, the greater your chances of dying early.

Researchers at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta came to the same conclusion after following more than 120,000 adults over a 14-year period. The greatest risk of death was for people who sat more than six hours a day, but there were still significant increases for anyone sitting down for as little as 3-5 hours.

The most startling part of these studies was that the association between sitting time and increased mortality wasn't linked to leisure-time physical activity levels or weight. Even people who were the appropriate weight and who had active leisure times, still had an increased risk of death if they sat all day at work. You've got to get out of that chair. Here are some options.

Start by standing up. Instead of sitting, raise your desk so you stand at it. Replace your chair with a tall stool. Then when you need to relax, you can sit without lowering the desk. Just like any activity, you should start gradually. Try standing for 10 minutes every couple of hours. Slowly increase the amount of time you're standing each week until you're standing at least half the time.

If you have a job that keeps you on the phone, get a portable model. Whenever you make a call, get up and walk around. Two minutes of walking for every 20 minutes of sitting can work wonders.

For those of you who have even more flexibility, get up every hour and take a brisk 6-minute walk. Use it to clear your head, elevate your heart rate and get back to work with a renewed outlook. Grab a drink of water while you're up and around.

The ultimate option is a standing desk with a treadmill attached. Studies don't go much beyond a year, but people who use them tend to drop a few pounds, significantly increase their daily activity levels and don't see a change in work performance. Long-term studies haven't been done yet, but it's certainly better than sitting on your butt and waiting for a heart attack.

Get up and move!

The Sitting Disease

UPDATE: 2014 Study of Canadian Adults

Several studies have shown that sitting at a desk job is much more harmful to your health than physically active work. However, few looked at simply replacing sitting with standing to see if there was a benefit.

The Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA examined the association between daily standing time and mortality among 16,586 Canadian adults from 18-90 years of age. They also included other risk factors like smoking and alcohol consumption.

After looking at the data for 12 years, they found that simply standing up can reduce your chances of death by 1/3. Add in a little daily exercise and you improve your odds even more.

UPDATE: 58 Minutes Sitting / 2 Walking

Good news for office workers! Sitting at a desk all day is a huge health risk. Now researchers at the University of Utah found that getting up and walking around, just 2 minutes every hour, can cut your risk of early death by 33%.

The study was published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (CJASN). Title: Light-Intensity Physical Activities and Mortality in the United States General Population and CKD Subpopulation.

Accepted March 14, 2015.

UPDATE: 11/1/2017 - Sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time may be bad for your health.

“Prolonged sitting should be interrupted every 30 min for blood glucose benefits, particularly in adults with type 2 diabetes.” That’s the recommendation of the American Diabetes Association in their Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes – 2017.

That doesn’t mean you need to run laps every half hour. Something as simple as standing and stretching for a minute during the commercials can help improve blood glucose management.

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Updated 4/29/2014
Updated 8/10/2015
Updated 11/1/2017
Updated 718/2018