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sitting is the “new smoking” increasing your risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease

October 29, 2010


I thought this was funny. With all the new saying out like 40 is the new 20. I found a really good one for all of you that sit all day at work. Sitting is the “new smoking” You ask why, it increasing your risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Mark Ramirez, a senior executive at AOL, could work in the cushiest leather chair, if he wanted. No, thanks. He prefers to stand most of the day at a desk raised above stomach level.

“I’ve got my knees bent, I feel totally alive,” he said. “It feels more natural to stand.”

In the past few years, standing has become the new sitting for 10 percent of AOL employees at the firm’s Virginia campus, part of a standing ovation among accountants, programmers, telemarketers and other office workers across the nation.

GeekDesk, a California firm that sells $800 desks raised by electric motors, says sales will triple this year.

Standers give various reasons for taking to their feet: It makes them feel more focused, prevents drowsiness, makes them feel like a general even if they just push paper. (Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld works standing up. So does novelist Philip Roth.)

But unknown to them, a debate is percolating among ergonomics experts and public-health researchers about whether all office workers should be encouraged to stand — to save lives.

Doctors point to surprising new research showing higher rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and even mortality among people who sit for long stretches. A study earlier this year in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that among 123,000 adults followed over 14 years, those who sat more than six hours a day were at least 18 percent more likely to die during the time period studied than those who sat less than three hours a day.

“Every rock we turn over when it comes to sitting is stunning,” said Marc Hamilton, a leading researcher on inactivity physiology at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana. “Sitting is hazardous. It’s dangerous. We are on the cusp of a major revolution.” He calls sitting “the new smoking.”

Not so fast, other experts say. Standing too much at work will cause more long-term back injuries. Incidences of varicose veins among women will increase. The heart will have to pump more. Alan Hedge, a noted ergonomics scholar at Cornell University, went so far as to call standing at work “one of the stupidest things one would ever want to do. This is the high heels of the furniture industry.”

What everyone can agree on, though, is that we were not exactly built to sit. “We were built to stand, to move, to walk,” said James Levine, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist who is so fanatical about not sitting at work that he walks at 1 mph all day on a treadmill at his desk.

When we sit, researchers say, important biological processes take a nap. An enzyme that vacuums dangerous fat out of the bloodstream works properly only when a body is upright. Standing also seems to ward off heart disease, burn calories, increase how well insulin lowers glucose and produce the good kind of cholesterol. Most of these processes occur — or don’t — regardless of whether someone exercises. People need to stand.

“At 160 pounds, it takes a tremendous amount of machinery to keep me upright, and this process does more than simply hold me up,” Levine said while on his desk treadmill. “Quite clearly, there are fundamental metabolic switches that go on when you stand up.”

Hedge, the Cornell professor, isn’t a fan of all this standing. “Making people stand all day is dumb,” he said. “Standing increases torso muscle activity and spinal disc pressure, increases the risk of varicose veins, increases the risk of carotid artery disease, and increases the load on the heart.”

The sensible and most cost-effective strategy, he said, is to sit in a neutral posture, slightly reclined, with the keyboard on a tray above the lap. This position promotes positive blood flow. Workers should occasionally walk around, stretch and avoid prolonged periods at the desk. The key, he said, is movement, not standing.


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