Woman in red dress sitting in a black office chair while slouched over a desk looking at a computer.
Sedentary behavior — such as prolonged sitting — can have serious health consequences. (Getty Images)

Prolonged sitting is awful for your health. These tips can help.

Virginia Commonwealth University expert Ryan Garten offers practical steps that can counteract the health consequences of sitting for too long.

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Research shows that sedentary behavior — such as prolonged sitting — can have serious health consequences.

Ryan Garten, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences, recently gave a talk, “Discovering New Ways to Reduce the Negative Impact of Sedentary Behavior,” as part of a speaker series organized by VCU’s C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

Garten, who has conducted research on the topic, offered a few practical tips to counteract the impact of prolonged sitting and other sedentary behavior.

Man in white shirt, blue tie and dark jacket.
Ryan Garten, Ph.D.

What exactly are the health impacts of sitting at a desk all day? 

Overall, sitting causes or is associated with many negative health outcomes (i.e. obesity, diabetes). My research has observed that sitting for long periods can harm the function of the blood vessels in the legs. This dysfunction can lead to stiffer, less-responsive blood vessels that, over time, can put a large amount of strain on the heart, increasing an individual’s risk for heart disease. This heart disease risk is further increased when coupled with weight gain associated with excessive sitting. There is currently speculation that sedentary behavior, to which sitting is the most common type, may be as bad for you as smoking! Thus, the importance of understanding the impact of sitting and how to counteract this effect has never been higher.

What practical advice would you give someone who sits at work? Should we all be asking for standing desks?

While the research on the effectiveness of standing desks on vascular health is still unclear, there are numerous other strategies that can reverse the negative effects of sitting. Our research has revealed that a 45-minute cycling exercise bout done prior to sitting can protect the blood vessels in the legs for up to three hours. Although this may not be a practical strategy for everyone, short walking bouts — less than 10 minutes — taken after every hour of sitting has also been shown to be beneficial. Overall, we need to identify when we have long bouts of sitting at work and implement physical activity before, during and after these bouts.

I imagine it’s hard to convince people to break out of sedentary routines, like sitting at a desk all day. How do you help combat that?

Motivating oneself to break sedentary routines can be difficult, but finding ways to incorporate physical activity into these routines is essential. The use of wearable technology (i.e. wrist-worn physical activity trackers) has emerged as a great tool to help individuals track their daily physical activity and sedentary behavior. Being more aware of how sedentary we really are is sometimes a greater instigator to break these routines and include more daily physical activity. Also, the implementation of physical activity as part of daily routine (i.e. walking to work, taking the stairs) is a great way to get positive results by restructuring our previously sedentary routine with healthier habits.

Could you tell me a bit about your research? How does this topic fit within your program of research?

My research focuses on identifying and reversing vascular aging in various populations. My research team examines numerous negative lifestyle behaviors (prolonged sitting, poor sleep quality and high salt intake) and diseases/disorders (hypertension, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder) that can damage an individual’s vascular health. We attempt to identify the mechanisms causing this vascular dysfunction and further work to implement effective rehabilitative techniques to counteract these factors and improve overall health.

Prolonged sitting is emerging as a major cause of vascular aging. Due to the shift in the U.S. from jobs that require a moderate amount of physical activity to jobs that are less active — often desk jobs — Americans are more sedentary than ever. This research area fits well into our research program as it is a broad issue impacting more and more people, but to which strategies can be implemented to reduce its impact.

Anything else you would like to add?

We recently published a study that showed sitting was equally harmful in individuals independent of their fitness levels. This showed that maintaining a high level of fitness, perhaps from regular running or biking exercise, did not protect against the negative effects of sitting. We believe this further shows the detrimental nature of sitting and how it should be avoided in all populations. So whether you exercise before work, take regular walking breaks, or barter with your boss for a treadmill desk, finding ways to move more throughout the day is key to counteracting the impact of sitting on the job.