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VCU instructor and exercise physiologist: Binge sitting is bad for your health

Matthew Scott helps explain the dangers of sedentary lifestyle, and offers advice on how people can become more active at home and at work.

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A new study published in Annals of Internal Medicine gives warning that excessive, sedentary behaviors put people in danger of early death. Compromised cardiovascular health is among the health risks the study says is hastened by prolonged inactivity.

Matthew Scott.
Matthew Scott.

“Societal norms like desk jobs and uninterrupted screen time contribute to sitting patterns often unknowingly practiced throughout the day,” said Matthew C. Scott, an instructor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences.

Scott is currently helping conduct a study in the VCU Exercise Physiology Research Laboratory, tracking the physiological parameters that arise when a person sits for three consecutive hours. The study also examines strategies that could limit the negative impact of sedentary time. Scott, a certified exercise physiologist, said the study’s results are a timely warning. He recently spoke with VCU News to offer advice on how people of any age or occupation can be active.

 

Define a sedentary lifestyle.

A sedentary lifestyle can be defined and evaluated in a few ways. The definition that applies will typically vary across different populations: 

  •  An accumulation of sedentary behaviors or activities with a very low energy expenditure.
  •  Not engaging in minimum levels of physical activity, defined as at least 30 minutes of moderate intense physical activity on most days of the week.
  •  Taking less than 5,000 steps a day.

 

What things contribute to sedentary lifestyle habits?

Technological advances in entertainment and work environments seem to be two of the biggest contributors. Most of our social entertainment involves sitting and staring at a screen. For example, if you watch two episodes of your favorite hourlong television show, one after the other, without getting up, you have accumulated two hours of sedentary time. Some studies show this may be enough to have an adverse effect on your health. The same applies to sitting with minimal movement during a normal, eight-hour work day. This is made worse in scenarios where sedentary habits are practiced at work and at home.

 

Is there a particular age group that is more susceptible to a sedentary lifestyle?

All age groups are susceptible to a sedentary lifestyle. However, all age groups can utilize strategies to minimize sedentary behaviors. 

Staying Active

Virginia Commonwealth University Recreational Sports launched its wellness program this semester, with a goal to motivate the VCU community to stay active. Working with VCU and VCU Health System Human Resources, Recreational Sports is providing health-related, employee workshops as a part of the RamStrong Fall 2017 Wellness Challenge.

 

What health risks are tied to sedentary lifestyles and why?

Sedentary lifestyles are tied to hypokinetic conditions and diseases, which are those that can develop due to a lack of movement. Examples include cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis, and some cancers. Another major risk of sedentary lifestyles is deep venous thrombosis, where a blood clot is formed in a deep vein. The reason why sedentary time leads to these diseases and conditions is unclear and complex. Research has provided some answers, though. We do know that the change in blood flow patterns while sedentary can contribute to DVT. Other research shows that changes to energy expenditure, blood flow and insulin sensitivity also precipitate health risks. Several research groups across the country are currently researching this, including a research group I’m part of that’s being led by VCU Kinesiology and Health Sciences Assistant Professor Ryan Garten, Ph.D.

 

What tips would you offer those who, because of their job, sit for extended periods of time?

Unfortunately, we do not have specific guidelines for limiting the negative effects of sedentary time. Some studies mention moving every 30 minutes. However, if this is impractical I would recommend getting up or moving for five to 10 minutes every hour. If you cannot get up from a meeting, try fidgeting with periodic leg movement. Additionally, try some of the following strategies to move more during the day. 

  •  Use a smaller water bottle so you can get up more often to fill it.  
  •  Set an alarm on your phone that reminds you to take a quick break or stand up. Several apps and devices can be programmed to alarm you that you have been sitting too long.
  •  Find examples of “deskercise” by typing “exercises to do at your desk” into your search engine. Try doing a few every hour.
  •  Move your feet up and down while in a chair.

 

What tips would you offer those who sit for extended periods of time because of medical conditions?

Take your muscle groups that have full mobility through their range of motion periodically. Again, try “deskercise.” Choose the exercises that fall within your capabilities and try to do them a few times every hour. Basic exercises can be done in a chair or adapted to be done in bed, and could help offset the negative impacts of not moving at all.

 

Combined with bad diet how detrimental is a sedentary lifestyle to an individual's health?

It can speed up the process of developing the diseases mentioned previously. Seeking advice from a registered dietician for your diet and an exercise physiologist for your physical activity requirements is the best route to take. If that is not possible, try using government or organizational websites to collect information and strategies to improve your diet.

 

Are modern inventions like standing desks in any way helpful as far as staying active?

There is limited evidence suggesting that standing is a healthier alternative to sitting. However, this is something that is currently being studied. Standing does require the contraction of more muscles than sitting. Therefore, I believe [standing desks] can be very beneficial if used properly. Yet, standing all day can lead to muscle and joint pain. Make sure to periodically give your body a rest from standing. I believe the best combination would be to alternate sitting and standing and adding in periodic movement breaks.

 

How is the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences educating students to treat patients susceptible to sedentary lifestyles?

With the growing body of research on this issue, most of our courses integrate the topic to give students a better understanding of what sedentary time does to the body, particularly in this age of television binging and social media. Students learn the physiological impact of inactivity, as well as how to write physical activity plans for individuals with chronic diseases and the general population. In the study we’re conducting in our department, students see scientific research as we try to determine exactly why sedentary lifestyles create a negative impact, and how we can combat those adverse health outcomes.