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Sit Happens: Is Your Desk Job Killing You?
Maybe, maybe not—but just in case, there's something you can do about it.
Happy Turkey Week, NPB Athletes! I hope you have a good one, although, as a life-long pescatarian, this particular holiday holds little draw for me. Every year, I’m ceremoniously presented with a brick of Tofurkey and then scrutinized by friends and family as though I’m E.T. being given a bowl of Reese’s Pieces. It was funny the first six times, but it gets old.
Still, it’s a nice opportunity to spend a day with people you love (even the ones you don’t like that much) and give thanks for the good stuff. It’s also a great day for long bike rides, runs, paddles, and surf sessions given the rest of the world is glued to their couches watching the football—be it NFL or FIFA.
Speaking of being glued to the couch, I wanted to talk a little about the potential detrimental effects of too much sedentary time.
(Apologies for that tortured segue. They can’t all be gems.)
You may recall, back in 2015, a systematic review and meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine came out claiming, “prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity.” In other words, sitting at a desk all day was linked with increased chances of heart issues, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and death in general.
That same year, another study in The International Journal of Epidemiology countered those findings, stating, “Sitting time was not associated with all-cause mortality risk.”
In 2017, more Annals of Internal Medicine research yanged back in the other direction with “Both the total volume of sedentary time and its accrual in prolonged, uninterrupted bouts are associated with all-cause mortality.”
More recently, another meta-analysis—this one from the December 2020 issues of the British Journal of Sports Medicine—“harmonized” the results of nine studies looking at 44,370 middle-aged and older men and women. (I wouldn’t have taken this paper seriously had it been one boomer less than 44,369.) The results suggested that 30 to 40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity cancels out the mortality-inducing connection to sitting on your butt for 8.5 to 10.5 hours per day.
The media ate up this game of research Pong with a constant flow of misrepresentative headlines like NBC’s “Here's more evidence sitting too much can kill you” refuted by FOX News’ “Study says sitting for long periods won't kill you, provided you exercise” countered by CNN’s “Yes, sitting too long can kill you, even if you exercise.”
The mass media oftentimes gets science wrong. Either they don’t understand it or they’re too willing to throw away the facts in lieu of harrowing headlines. In other words, the news often makes it scarier than it really is. Two other topics they tend to hyperbolize are added sugar and alcohol.
Not a single one of these studies directly linked sitting to death. Rather, they associated sitting with death. This sounds picky, but it’s a big difference. Unlike news outlets and attention-seeking podcasters, researchers tend not to speak in absolutes, especially when it comes to epidemiology and meta-analysis.
Epidemiological research collects data from out in the real world and crunches numbers to try to find connections. Meta-analysis takes a bunch of existing research and, again, crunches numbers to try to find connections. There are many ways to crunch those numbers and many ways to find connections. With that in mind, researchers understand that their observations are rarely definitive; they know other researchers may shuffle the cards differently and contradict them with equally interesting findings. This is why all of these papers “associated” sitting with mortality. They didn’t state cause and effect; they just said, “There appears to be some sort of connection.”
Look at it this way. At 4,101 feet, Canada’s Mount Thor is the world’s steepest cliff. If you fall off Mount Thor, it’s reasonably safe to say that you will die. However, if you stand close to the edge of Mount Thor, you won’t necessarily fall and die. You’ll just increase your chances of falling and dying. In other words, standing on the edge of Mount Thor can be associated with falling and dying.
It’s not that you should avoid Mount Thor. If you can get up there, I’m sure it’s a helluva view. But you should be mindful when standing on the edge.
Same goes for sitting all day, especially if you have a desk job. If you can’t avoid it, don’t freak out. Just be mindful.
I’m not advocating for #desklife. There are plenty of reasons not to sit all day. A 2018 study on the caloric burn of standing versus sitting all day showed the difference in caloric burn worked out to 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) of body weight annually.
(It’s easy to pick apart this sort of math versus physiology, but you get the point.)
Also, sitting all day has been associated with lower back pain. This 2018 paper in the journal Ergonomics states, “continuous, 40 min. periods of unsupported sitting had broad impacts on subjective and objective outcomes, including discomfort, postures, spine loads and localized muscle fatigue.”
But all those issues can usually be mitigated by standing up every 30 minutes or so. A standing desk can be a good option too. I’ve had a Vari standing desk for years and it works great.
In the 21st century, sit happens. Some of us have desk jobs and that’s okay. And many of us spend more time than we should watching sports on TV. Don’t lose sleep because the major media outlets like to play Big, Bad Wolf with their headlines. Take solace in the fact that, as an active person, your chosen lifestyle has been associated with being a truly protective brick house.
But, if you’re reading this, you might already know that.
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