The Curious Case of the Active Couch Potato

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Exercise is good for you. Sitting too much is bad for you. There’s nothing new there.

But what about those of us who exercise a lot — and sit a lot?

Let’s say you run 3–5 days a week, 30 minutes–1 hour each time. Perhaps you do some strength training or yoga a few days a week as well. You clearly meet — even exceed — any guidelines for physical activity. But then, you spend most of your other waking hours sitting down at work, on your commute, on your couch after work, you name it.

If this sounds familiar, you just may be an “active couch potato” — a term that refers to people who get their recommended physical activity, but spend a lot of time sitting, usually because they have sedentary jobs.

SITTING OURSELVES TO DEATH

Sitting too much comes with several risk factors, says Matthew P. Buman, PhD, and associate professor of exercise science at Arizona State University. “Evidence has emerged that sitting does have an independent risk on many health outcomes,” he says. This includes a higher risk for diabetes, a premature death risk and musculoskeletal problems.

What’s interesting is the risk may be independent of how much exercise you get. “People who sit for long periods of time, defined as sitting for 30–60 minutes without stopping, may be at greater risk for a poor health outcome,” Buman says.

A Lancet study from last year looked at a million people, trying to clarify this risk. “They found that if you are an avid exerciser, the risk for premature death because of too much sitting is quite low,” Buman says. He defines avid as double the 150 minutes/week recommendation, so 300 minutes a week, or almost an hour a day. “But even moderate exercisers have an increased risk. And if you don’t exercise at all, you definitely have a risk.”

WORKPLACE STRATEGIES FOR SITTING LESS

Even for those of us who run regularly and rack up the mileage, there is an opportunity to reduce how much we sit. The most harmful type of sitting is the prolonged type, like a cross-country airplane ride. “Sitting for five hours straight appears to be worse than sitting all day long, but getting up and down frequently,” Buman says.

Tips to help you reduce your sitting time throughout the day include:

Use a sit/stand desk, which allows you to work sitting or standing. “These types of desks have shown some results in studies. Standing 70 minutes per eight-hour workday may have an impact on overall health,” Buman says.
Set reminders on your phone to get up and move around at regular intervals. “It may seem like wasted time to take a lap around the office, but it will make you more productive in the end,” he advises.
Take public transportation. “Research shows that people who take public transportation tend to sit less. They may be sitting on the bus, but often have to walk to and from the bus or train.”
ADJUST YOUR PIE CHART

The advice Buman likes best is to think of your day as a pie chart. One-third of the time is sleep. That still leaves 2/3 of your day. Of those 16 hours, exercise may only represent a tiny sliver. “If you think about the whole day, the period you consider opportunity for exercise is relatively small. You get in 30 minutes to an hour, but what about rest of day?” Buman says.

It doesn’t necessarily mean exercising more. Rather, it’s about sitting less during the rest of the day, he says. “By moving the dial a little bit, we may be making an impact on our health.”

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