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Sitting May Increase Your Disease Risk

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"Many activities like talking on the phone or watching a child's ballgame can be done just as enjoyably upright, and you burn double the number of calories while you're doing it," said Marc Hamilton, an associate professor of biomedical sciences whose work was recently published in Diabetes. "We're pretty stationary when we're talking on the phone or sitting in a chair at a ballgame, but if you stand, you're probably going to pace or move around."

In a series of studies that will be presented at the Second International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health in Amsterdam, Hamilton, Theodore Zderic, a post-doctoral researcher, and their research team studied the impact of inactivity among rats, pigs and humans. In humans, they studied the effects of sitting in office chairs, using computers, reading, talking on the phone and watching TV.

They found evidence that sitting had negative effects on fat and cholesterol metabolism. Sitting shuts down the circulation of a fat-absorbing enzyme called lipase, while standing up engages muscles and promotes the distribution of lipase, which prompts the body to process fat and cholesterol, independent of the amount of time spent exercising. Standing up also uses blood glucose and may discourage the development of diabetes.

"The existing data, by numerous studies, are starting to show that the rates of heart disease and diabetes and obesity are doubled or sometimes even tripled in people who sit a lot," Dr. Hamilton explains. One reason, he says, is an enzyme called lipase. When it's on, fat is absorbed into the muscles, but when we sit down, lipase virtually shuts off.

The researchers also found that physical inactivity throughout the day stimulated disease-promoting processes, and that exercising, even for an hour a day, was not sufficient to reverse the effect.

There is a misconception that actively exercising is the only way to make a healthy difference in an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. However, Hamilton's studies found that standing and other non-exercise activities burn many calories in most adults even if they do not exercise at all.

"The enzymes in blood vessels of muscles responsible for 'fat burning' are shut off within hours of not standing," Hamilton said. "Standing and moving lightly will re-engage the enzymes, but since people are awake 16 hours a day, it stands to reason that when people sit much of that time they are losing the opportunity for optimal metabolism throughout the day."

Hamilton hopes that creative strategies in homes, communities and workplaces can help solve the problem of inactivity. Some common non-exercise physical activities that people can do instead of sitting include performing household chores, shopping, typing while standing and even fidgeting while standing. Given the work of muscles necessary to hold the body's weight upright, standing can double the metabolic rate. Hamilton believes that scientists and the public have underestimated common activities because they are intermittent and do not take as much effort as a heavy workout.

Another benefit to standing -- standing improves your HDL or good cholesterol levels. People who sat reduced their good cholesterol levels by 22 percent!

"To hold a body that weighs 170 pounds upright takes a fair amount of energy from muscles," Hamilton said. "You can appreciate that our legs are big and strong because they must be used all the time. There is a large amount of energy associated with standing every day that can't be easily compensated for by 30 to 60 minutes at the gym."

Only 28 percent of Americans are getting the minimal amount of recommended exercise. Hamilton predicts that eventually there will be health campaigns with doctors advocating limiting sitting time, just like they ask people to limit sun and second hand smoke exposure.

"The purpose of medical research is to offer effective new strategies for people whom the existing therapies are not working," Hamilton said. "Because our research reveals that too little exercise and excessive sitting do not change health by the same genes and biological mechanisms, it offers hope for people who either are not seeing results from exercise or cannot exercise regularly. The lifestyle change we are studying is also unlike exercise because it does not require that people squeeze an extra hour into their days and/or get sweaty at the gym, but instead improving the quality of what they already are doing.

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