It can be frustrating to see habits change slower than the pace of medical science.
For example, it took a few decades for hospitals to ban smoking inside their facilities — and later on, for their entire campuses — even though the risk of cancer and heart disease was long known. That slow move to implement smoke-free campuses is the justification hospitals often give me for their lack of response to the World Health Organization's classification of processed red meats as Class I carcinogens. How ridiculous is that in this era of social media and transparency?
And now, there is a third health risk that is well-established and yet is being ignored: prolonged sitting. Many industries require long periods of sitting. But in my view, the medical profession has the responsibility to adopt health trends earlier than other occupations to educate the public about the risks and solutions. I am amazed how medical meetings have not yet built in breaks to stand and move. I have given lectures where I invite all participants to stand, but I suspect that this is a rarity.
So what have we learned, and what can you do to avoid the potential harms?
- Sitting was first linked to health issues and weight gain in 2005 by James Levine, M.D., who observed that overweight people moved a lot less, even while sitting, than thinner study subjects.
- In further studies, prolonged sitting was associated with not only weight gain but diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and premature death as well.
- Subsequent studies have confirmed that there is an association between prolonged sitting and early death.
Standing and treadmill desks are some possible solutions, and they are increasingly popular (although rarely seen in hospital nursing stations or doctors' lounges). There are also many free videos online that demonstrate short bursts of activity you can do at your desk. Even two minutes of activity an hour was shown to reduce the risk of complications of prolonged sitting in a population with kidney disease.
But there's also a new kid on the block to overcome prolonged sitting at work or home: fidgeting, or periodic leg movements as it's known in the scientific literature. Yes, the very thing you probably were told not to do growing up ("Sit still!") is one of the solutions to our sedentary lifestyle. There's promising new data on fidgeting while sitting, including:
- Sitting more than seven hours a day was associated with increased rates of death in a large population of British women, but only in those who were low fidgeters.
- Sitting for three hours shaking one leg and not the other causes a drop in the function of leg arteries in the immobile leg while improving the health of arteries in the fidgeting leg.
Our Western diets and lifestyles encourage chronic disease and premature death. Just as medical centers ultimately recognized that smoking on campuses was not consistent with their mission and banned it, it's time to look at our food and fitness at work in a similar light. Our health is suffering from our sedentary lifestyle.
That's why you'll find me at my desk with my legs bouncing up and down, or in the corner of the lecture hall pacing back and forth out of the way. I invite you to join me, and call upon medical centers and other work sites to build movement into our workday — even if only for five minutes an hour. For your own health, get fidgeting.