Mr. Norris, someone told me that sitting can be bad for your health. Ever heard of that? – Randy T., Newark, N.J.

I recently read a fascinating yet alarming article about sitting by Maria Masters in Men’s Health magazine. She reported how people who sit for most of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of a heart attack, regardless of how much they exercise or how well they eat. Yes, you read that right: 54 percent.

The study came from the research journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Scientists from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center – the nation’s leading obesity research center, located in Baton Rouge, La. – analyzed the lifestyles of more than 17,000 men and women over 13 years.

It seems this isn’t the first study to link sitting and heart disease. As far back as 1953, British researchers discovered that sitting bus drivers were twice as likely to die of a heart attack as standing trolley conductors. And as recently as 2007, University of Missouri scientists reported that people who had high levels of non-exercise activity but didn’t exercise much burned more calories a week than those who ran 35 miles a week but had moderate levels of non-exercise activity.

As far as why it is more dangerous to sit than stand, Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., a physiologist and professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, says the answer revolves around the enzyme lipoprotein lipase, or LPL, which breaks down fat in the bloodstream and turns it into energy. Hamilton discovered that standing rats have 10 times more LPL than lying rats, regardless of their diet or how much they exercised.

It’s not that humans are exercising less; it’s that we’re sitting more. Especially with the advent of the personal computer and the social networking era, we lead more sedentary lifestyles. A 2006 University of Minnesota study found that from 1980 to 2000, exercise patterns remained the same in people, but the amount of time we spent sitting rose by eight percent.

Whether they be corporate workers or students, most who sit for a living have learned by experience about the posture and back pain risks of sitting for long periods. But the fact is that we also burn 60 more calories an hour when standing versus sitting (that’s roughly 500 calories for every eight-hour workday). A study from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, found that within eight months of starting sedentary office work, people gained an average of 16 pounds. Combine that with the increased LPL levels, and it is no wonder that our sedentary hearts are more like ticking time bombs.

Hamilton explained: “We know there’s a gene in the body that causes heart disease, but it doesn’t respond to exercise, no matter how often or how hard you work out. And yet the activity of the gene becomes worse from sitting – or, rather, the complete and utter lack of contractile activity in your muscles. So the more non-exercise activity you do, the more total time you spend on your feet and out of your chair. That’s the real cure.”

So here’s what Hamilton and I recommend:

  • Stand up! Get up off your tush more often. If you usually take one break an hour, now take two – if even for a short stretch or a drink of water down the corridor. I’m not trying to reduce productivity, but consider that a European Heart Journal study of 5,000 men and women found that those who took more breaks during the day were 1.6 inches thinner than those who did not.
  • Redefine exercise as a lifestyle rather than just an activity. Redefine working out to include every portion of your day. Don’t just be fit; live fit.
  • Stand when you talk on the phone. Redefine your phone ring; download a ring tone that reminds you to get off your derriere. When the phone rings, it’s a sign not only that someone wants to talk with you but also that you need to stand up again.
  • Lastly, consider allotting time (certain hours) in your day to stand up and work. Temporarily remove your chair from your sight for that period of the day. Move your computer to a waist-high counter, table or desk. Consider getting a stand-up desk; these desks are becoming more and more popular.

Leading the way are many personnel in the offices at Men’s Health magazine who have dumped their office chairs and are standing during their workdays.

It’s more proof to support this old adage: If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

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