Mind & Body

Which Is More Important: Sitting Less or Exercising More?

We all remember the day the news exploded across the web: Sitting is killing you! Exercise and standing are no help! Death awaits! That was back in 2015. In the years since, we've seen a groundswell of standing desks, which have their own drawbacks. But let's face it: For most of us, sitting is a necessity. If you want to preserve your health, is it better to try standing more or just hit the gym more often?

Three Lifestyles In 12 Days

A new study in Scientific Reports tries to figure out how to go about this, though. It explores the basic question that's still up for grabs: Seeing as half of all American jobs require sitting for at least half of the time, what exactly does a healthy, realistic lifestyle look like? How can you sit for hours a day without damaging your basic health?

To get a sense, researchers studied a group of 61 adults who didn't exercise regularly. Some were normal weight, some overweight, and some were overweight and diabetic. Each study participant tried out three different lifestyles for four days at a time. Here's how they worked:

  • Lifestyle 1: Sitting. Participants sat for 14 hours a day, moving only for bathroom breaks.
  • Lifestyle 2: Exercise. Participants sat for 13 hours a day and rode a stationary bike at a moderate speed for one hour a day.
  • Lifestyle 3: "SitLess." Participants sat for eight hours a day and spent the remaining five or six hours standing or walking around, burning roughly the same number of calories as the hour of biking.

As the participants experimented with these new routines, researchers tracked their metabolic and cardiac health. They also kept the participants on standardized diets to make sure nobody's midnight ice-cream cravings threw off the results.

The Cure for Sitting

The study's findings were, in a way, predictable: Sitting is bad for you. Those 2015 headlines weren't kidding! Just four days of this lifestyle changed even healthy participants' cardiac and metabolic health for the worse. The results were more interesting, though, when it came to the exercise and "SitLess" groups. In both, participants burned roughly the same number of calories per day, but the two lifestyles had different impacts on their health.

The exercise group had improved cardiac health — perhaps because it hiked up blood flow — but their metabolic health remained the same as it had been at the beginning of the study. The "SitLess" group, meanwhile, showed improved metabolic health but had the same cardiac health as before. The lead researcher on the study, Bernard Duvivier, told the New York Times that simply being vertical, as opposed to sitting, requires muscle activity, and active, contracting muscles need more fuel. This probably explains why the "SitLess" group had healthier metabolisms.

These results suggest that you need both exercise and general movement to counteract the dark side of sitting. In other words, both what the exercise group and the "SitLess" group did were better than just sitting, but they're stronger combined than they are apart.

This actually builds on something we've known for a while — that even people who exercise regularly burn the bulk of their calories through non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT. This is physical activity that's not your garden-variety gym stuff, like going on the meandering walks of the "SitLess" group, carrying groceries, or cleaning your house. People rarely "count" this activity towards a diet and exercise regimen, but a day of running errands is just as important for maintaining a healthy weight as running a couple of miles.

This latest study expands on NEAT's already established benefits: Not only does it help us maintain our waistlines, but it also provides unique metabolic benefits that shorter, more intense workouts don't. We won't say this is neat, but it's ... pretty cool.

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If you're in the market for a standing desk, this is one we've got in the Curiosity office. If you just want a stylish reminder to get up and stretch your legs once in a while, this cool magnetic hourglass should do the trick. If you choose to make a purchase through those links, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice September 14, 2018

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