LONG periods spent sitting down have been declared the new “public health enemy” by Scottish researchers looking at new ways to get us all to stand up more.
Professor Dawn Skelton, from Glasgow Caledonian University, said prolonged sitting was on a par with smoking in the damage it could do to people’s health. She said even regular gym-goers could see their health suffer if they spent the rest of their time sitting for long periods at work or home.
Skelton is now leading experts from five universities to see what could be done to encourage people to stand up more. Ideas included greater use of “standing desks” and on-screen prompts to stand up between TV programmes.
While a large amount of research has focussed on whether people are meeting recommended levels of physical activity, very little attention has been given to the time spent in sedentary activities.
But Skelton said a growing body of work was now linking prolonged sitting with poorer bone health, increased risk of diabetes and higher death rates. In future, she predicted a growing number of health problems would also be linked to our love of a comfy chair.
“Long periods sitting are associated with a bigger waist, depression and social isolation, even an increased risk of death,” Skelton said.
“These associations appear to be strong even if people are active in other parts of their day. It seems that prolonged sitting is the new public health enemy, but our study will look at how we can change that behaviour.”
Skelton said since the 1970s, research had shown that bed rest was bad, due to rapid loss of bone and muscle if people lay down for too long, meaning they are encouraged to get mobile after surgery.
But this message had not been extended in people’s thinking about sitting down for long periods, which had its own detrimental effects.
“It appears that those people who still sit for a long time but break it up on a regular basis seem to do better than those who just sit for a long time,” she said.
“It doesn’t appear to be that you have to get up and go for a run. It’s actually just the act of standing that seems to make a difference. Some of it will be due to circulation changes as the heart has to work harder when you stand up. Some of it will be muscle pull on the bones to keep you upright. Some of it will be changes in hormones which might come from a change in gravity and movement patterns. There are lots of things that could be causing the link.”
Skelton said some countries were already taking the dangers seriously. She had experienced this as a guest professor at Umeå University in Sweden. “I turned up for my first week and was shown my office and I had a standing desk.”
Working with researchers from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and Salford, Skelton’s team will look at the best ways of measuring how long people spend sitting down. They will also look at the effects of sitting down on the health of older people and find ways to encourage people to break up long periods of sitting.
Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, backed moves to get people to stand up more.
“When you consider that you use five calories getting up to change the TV channel rather than using the remote, you can tell that anything that involves muscular activity has to be a good thing,” he said.
Case study - Mobility: use it or lose it
GETTING people up and about is the focus of a project being run across Scotland, with many schemes targeting the elderly.
Charity Reaching Older Adults in Renfrewshire (ROAR) aims to reduce isolation and promote well-being, including highlighting the dangers of sitting for long periods.
General manager Nicola Hanssen said: “A very big part of that is supporting people to take responsibility for self-management and to see the benefits to their health and well-being.
“The impact on someone’s life of being frail and not being able to mobilise as much and falling has a devastating effect.
“Society benefits from older adults staying on their feet and older people also benefit. It is a win-win situation.”
ROAR runs events to encourage people to get out and learn about the benefits of staying mobile and standing up more.
“You have to use it or lose it,” Hanssen said. “It is about motivation and support. It is difficult for people to remain motivated and see the benefits of not just staying sitting for long periods.
“The longer you stay sitting, you will just sit more and more. You have to make a conscious effort to break it.
“We are helping them think of strategies, such as hiding the remote control or breaking up their sitting so every time the adverts come on they walk up and down the stairs.”