The Effects of Sitting for Over 6 Hours a Day Are Both Deadly and Costly

Sitting is the scourge of our time, but fighting back doesn’t have to be hard.

By Emma Betuel

A lack of physical activity is projected to put nearly 1.4 billion people worldwide at risk for chronic diseases like diabetes or heart disease. As if the health risks themselves weren’t enough to illustrate the costs of sitting idly, a team of scientists in England have put a hard number on both the astronomical health and financial costs of a sedentary lifestyle.

“I hope that the public are more aware of how their own behavior affects their health, which in turn costs the healthcare services money,” Heron tells Inverse.

sitting man
Sitting for at least six hours per day is associated with high financial costs 

Why is Sitting So Bad?

Heron analyzed the findings of six longitudinal studies [A longitudinal study is a research design that involves repeated observations of the same variables over short or long periods of time.] each identifying a link between sedentary activity and one of the following conditions: cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, all-cause mortality (even death has its costs), colon cancer, lung cancer, and endometrial (uterine) cancer.

She relied on longitudinal studies because the UK’s National Health System doesn’t actually keep track of deaths or expenditures related to sitting around all day. The findings of her study suggest that it should.

Sitting may be costly, but offsetting its effects don’t have to require massive amounts of exercise. 

She estimates that sedentary behavior was the root cause behind 16.9 percent of type two diabetes cases, 4.9 percent of cardiovascular disease cases, and 11.6 percent of deaths due to all-cause mortality in the UK. It also may have been behind 7.5 percent of lung cancers, 9 percent of colon cancers and 8 percent of endometrial cancers, she writes.

Attempts to treat patients with all of these conditions is what costs the UK millions of pounds per year, she says. The high death count is due to the failure of those treatments.

The situation may seem bleak, but Heron says that even modest reductions in sedentary activity could have big effects on the population level.

If even 10 percent of people managed to sit for less than six hours per day, then 4,802 lives could have been saved in 2016, she says. If 30 percent of people achieved that task, 12,006 people could have been saved. And if 50 percent of the country managed to do so, then 24,012 people might not have died.

How Do We Save Ourselves From Sitting?

Getting massive amounts of the population to reduce sedentary behavior is a big ask, and as Heron notes is “probably unrealistic.” As it stands, 29 percent of men and women in the UK were sedentary for at least six hours per weekday in 2016. Sitting is is an inescapable part of working a desk job, but there are still ways to mitigate the risks.

Heron’s suggestion is to incorporate small amounts of exercise into the day — not becoming a world-class cross-fitter. She recommends going for a walk at lunchtime or standing during a coffee break instead of sitting. The idea is just to push the needle from “no movement at all” to “even just a small amount of movement.”

“If you are standing or moving while expending more energy, you are no longer sedentary,” Heron says. “Guidelines have typically focused on achieving more moderate-vigorous physical activity, however there are considerable health benefits from moving from sedentary behavior to light physical activity.”

She isn’t the only person to highlight the impacts of even small amounts of movements. For example, some research has shown that walking, dancing, or gardening for as little as 10 minutes per day is associated with an 18 percent reduced risk of death.

As costly and deadly as sitting may be, the cures seem to be simple — doing anything is always better than doing nothing. Just breaking up the seated monotony a little bit can go a long way.

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