Sitting duck

I use the word “sedentary” a lot when I’m sharing studies with you. Usually to denote a simple lack of exercise.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that I’ve had it all wrong.

Because telling someone to exercise and telling someone to be less sedentary are actually two very different things.

In fact, a new study shows that the amount of time you spend sedentary–that is, sitting or lying down–has a bigger influence on diabetes risk than vigorous exercise.

In other words, that sweaty hour-long stint at the gym doesn’t cancel out 12 hours spent in front of your desk.

And even regular exercisers can be “sedentary” if they’re not moving around enough throughout the rest of the day.

It might sound like nitpicking. But just consider the following discovery.

In this study, researchers looked at a group of subjects with known diabetes risk factors. And they assessed the extent to which activity levels impacted concerns like weight, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.

Greater sedentary time was independently linked to higher weight, glucose, and triglyceride levels–not to mention lower “good” HDL cholesterol levels.

And this link persisted among all age ranges–meaning that the effects of sitting around all day are just as acute among the young and the elderly alike.

Needless to say, these results call for a real change in thinking about the prevention and treatment of diabetes.

Anyone at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes needs to start thinking about how much of their day they devote to sedentary behavior. And how they can start reducing it.

Current guidelines call for at least 150 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. And you should still be getting that much. But it’s just as critical to get on your feet and move more throughout the day–whether that means you break a sweat or not.

Of course, this is consistent with what I generally say to my patients, anyway. I often tell people that doing something is better than doing nothing.

Walking more, taking steps instead of an elevator, or just parking further away from your destination. These are all simple strategies to become less sedentary.

And they’re all really important. Because let’s face it, most of our jobs are sedentary as it is.

Even as I write this, I’m thinking about how many more hours today I’ll be sitting in front of this computer. And frankly, I’m getting a little worried.

Obviously, it’s not practical to just up and quit your desk job for a life of constant motion. But taking more short breaks throughout the day–or even standing in front of your computer at work–could make a big difference.

“Associations of objectively measured sedentary behaviour and physical activity with markers of cardiometabolic health.” Diabetologia. 2013 May;56(5):1012-20.