'It's really bad for you' – TV3 doctor explains why sitting too much could kill you

As the general manager of a meat factory, Patrick Kiely’s role was a sedentary one.

He was familiar with the hazards of too much sitting around – the increased risk of weight gain, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke or diabetes – because his doctor kept reminding him.

But Pat didn’t listen to his doctor’s appeals for him to start taking regular exercise, and over a period of about 10 years he put on three and a half stone, reaching 18-and-a-half stone.

This he says bluntly “came from too much sitting around and lack of exercise”, partly because of a desk-based job as manager of the family meat processing business.

“I was the typical couch potato, sitting at work all day, then, after dinner, I’d be dropping the children to and from their activities.

“Then I’d sit watching TV, too tired to even consider going for a walk.”

He always found an excuse not to exercise, he says. By his mid-forties, Pat was so overweight and so unfit, he couldn’t climb the 13 steps of the stairs in the family home just outside Waterford city without stopping to catch his breath.

“I couldn’t run around with the three children or play football or catch for any period.”

And he also couldn’t ever seem to manage a good night’s sleep, he recalls.

In February 2012 he arrived at the doctor’s surgery feeling very unwell. The doctor’s response, he recalls, was to ask Pat to consider taking part in a marathon at the end of June that year.

“I wanted a miracle cure for my overweight and lack of energy – and he wanted me to do a marathon,” recalls Pat.

“I told him, in no uncertain terms, that I’d never run a marathon and he suggested walking the half marathon.

“He reminded me that I had a wife and three children who needed me.”

That night, Pat recalls, he thought long and hard about his health, his life and his family.

“I googled ‘marathons’, ‘running’, training’, ‘couch to 5k’ and so on,” he recalls.

By 3am he had entered the Waterford Viking Half Marathon which was to take place at the end of June, approximately 19 weeks away.

“The following night I went for a one kilometre walk. “It nearly killed me! I thought, again, about my family, my health, my age. I needed to be able to keep up with my children and I thought about my doctor’s words, “it’s never too late” and “exercise is the pill to cure all ills”.

He kept at it night after night, gradually building up to 6km.

“I was starting to sleep better, didn’t need to stop at the top of the stairs, started to feel more energetic, my clothes felt looser. I was feeling good!”

He completed the half-marathon of 21 kilometres in three hours and 18 minutes. Since then he’s run 13 marathons, each in about two hours 19 minutes and countless 10km, five kilometre, and five-mile races. He goes walking, jogging or running for an hour, five or six days per week and also regularly participates in parkruns, timed runs, jogging sessions or walks, which take place at 9.30 every Saturday morning at locations around Ireland.

“I’ve recently completed my 75th parkrun in Tramore and I’m looking forward to my 100th, which I should reach sometime towards the middle of next year,” says Pat, now 53.

“I’m not a lean, super-fit athlete, but I am fit, healthy, energetic dad who can keep up with his children. If I hadn’t changed my lifestyle when I did, that might have killed me.”

GP, lifestyle expert and author of two books on health, Dr Mark Rowe, is blunt about the hazards of sitting.

Prolonged sitting is bad for your health, he warns – and this not just about sitting in front of the TV or a digital device.

Any form of extended sitting, he emphasises, whether at work or commuting to work, can be harmful. Even more worrying, he says, research has found that moderately intense exercise at the gym or elsewhere doesn’t appear to significantly offset the risks posed by sitting around for long periods of time. What this essentially means he says, is that prolonged sitting is a risk factor for a range of negative health conditions no matter how healthy the rest of your lifestyle may be.

What’s the answer?

“Sit less and move a lot more,” says Rowe, who points to a study of 123,000 middle-aged adults over 14 years carried out by the American Cancer Society, and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology which concluded that prolonged sitting is seriously bad for your health.

The study found that women who sat the most had a 34pc greater risk of dying from any cause during the study duration compared with those who sat the least. For men who sat the most the increased risk of dying was 17pc.

The findings showed that women who were the most sedentary (who neither moved nor exercised a lot) were almost 100pc more likely to die during the study period than those who moved and exercised the most.

“By contrast, the more sedentary men were 50pc more likely to die than their more active counterparts.”

Why does this happen?

When you sit down, Rowe explains, you begin to slow down and shut off the enzymes and systems that break down your blood fat (triglycerides) and sugars. On top of that, he says, you “marinate” in cortisol, which is the negative stress hormone and move towards fat storage, diabetes, heart disease and a pro-inflammatory, accelerated ageing state.

Research has linked prolonged sitting with increased risk of a number of adverse health conditions including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.

Put it this way, explains Dr Brian Higgins, GP, TV3’s in-house doctor and a strong advocate of ‘standing desks’.

“Sitting is really bad for you!

“Humans are not designed to sit down, yet modern life is designed to have us sitting in terms of work, travel and relaxation.”

The problem is, he says, we’re now realising that this may be affecting us badly.

We know that sitting on a plane on long-haul flights can increase the risk of a blood clot because lack of movement reduces the circulation of the blood. However, we should also be aware that sitting down for prolonged periods can increase our risk of back pain because it affects the muscles at the front of the body – they become tight and short because sitting at a desk curves us forward. Meanwhile, our hip, shoulder and neck muscles become tight and our back muscles become weak because we are not using them for standing.

People should also realise that sitting down for prolonged periods can affect our brain function making memory less effective because it makes it harder to concentrate and problem solve, says Higgins who reveals that he personally makes a point of standing up from his desk every 10 minutes.

He strongly recommends the provision of standing desks for people who sit down a lot, such as administrative staff, IT workers and accountants, adding that standing desks might also be helpful for people with long commutes to work.

Higgins is particularly worried about teenage girls who give up sport in their mid to late teens.

“They can end up sitting for longer periods of time than any other age group. It is a very big issue, as it can affect mood, brain function and energy levels as well as bone health.”

Sit less and move more: top tips from Dr Mark Rowe

* Simply stand whenever you can – during your coffee break, or talking to a colleague on the phone.

* Be ‘NEAT’er – Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) refers to the significant amounts of energy you can burn through simple daily activities like standing or doing housework that aren’t classed as exercise. It all adds up.

* STANDING DESK – Invest in a standing desk which will enable you to vary your working position.

* Suggest ‘Walk and Talk’ – work meetings which can also help develop creative ideas and thinking.

* Try to discipline yourself to the 30-Minute Rule – “I believe you should stand up every 30 minutes or so and walk around,” says Dr Rowe. He suggests setting a reminder on your phone that goes off every 30 minutes to prompt you to stand up, stretch or get a glass of water.

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