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Why Sitting Kills

In my last newsletter, I pointed out why exercise along is not good enough by giving an example of a group of marathon runners who all have heart disease despite their vigorous exercise routines. It turned out these runners all assumed they could eat anything they want as long as they run, which is not true. A good exercise routine must be accompanied by a good dietary habit. In this issue, I would like to share a recent finding on why sitting too much is such a bad idea in our daily life.

Many of my patients disclosed that at least 80% of their daily life is spent sitting during their waking hours. If you pause and think then you would probably agree with this statement. We sit to eat three meals; we sit to read and use computer; we sit to watch TV, and we sit to drive. We know sitting too much is bad, but what exactly goes wrong in our bodies that make us sick? A recent article titled “The Health Hazards of Sitting” published on January 20, 2014 described in details what can go wrong from head to toe if you sit more than 8 hours a day. I summarize the findings and encourage members to change the sitting habit to either standing or moving most of the time.

Let’s start from the top. Moving pumps fresh blood and oxygen through the brain and triggers the release of brain- and mood-enhancing chemicals. Sedentary for a long time gives us foggy brain. If sitting occurs at a desk at work, craning neck forward toward a book, keyboard, a computer, or tilting head to cradle a phone while typing can strain the cervical vertebrae and lead to sore neck, shoulder, and upper back. Many of my patients came for acupuncture exactly for these pain issues.

What about the impacts on internal organs she sitting too long? Muscles burn less fat and blood flows more sluggishly during a long sit, allowing fatty acids to more easily clog the heart. Prolonged sitting has been linked to high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, and people with most sedentary time are more than twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease than those with the least. Pancreas suffers too. The pancreas produces insulin, a hormone carries glucose to cells for energy. But cells in idle muscles don’t respond as readily to insulin, so the pancreas produces more and more, which can lead to diabetes. A 2011 study found a decline in insulin response after just one day of prolonged sitting! Colon cancer is number two leading cause of cancer for both men and women in the U.S. Studies have linked sitting to a greater risk for colon, breast and endometrial cancers. Although the scientific reason is unknown, from Chinese medicine point of view, prolonged sitting leads to stagnation of vital energy (Qi) and blood in the torso area, which can lead to blockage that encourages forming of mass.

Three out of four pain patients who came to see me complained about pain in low back and pelvic muscles. Prolonged sitting often is one key cause of the pain. When we move around, soft discs between vertebrae expand and contract like sponges, soaking up fresh blood and nutrients. But sitting for a long time discs are squashed unevenly and surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments harden. Pelvic, abdominal, and hip muscles become weak, tight, and imbalanced, which can lead to sway back, instability, and weak stride.

Lastly but not least sitting for a long period of time slows blood circulation, which causes fluid to pool in the legs that can lead to swollen ankles, varicose veins, and clots, Weight-bearing activities such as walking and jogging stimulates hip and lower-body bones to grow thicker, denser and stronger.

Now you see why sitting too long is not a good idea. But why sitting kills? People who watched the most TV in an 8.5-year study had a 61 percent greater risk of dying than those who watched less than one hour per day. Now I am glad I cancelled TV subscription five years ago. So keep moving naturally. Let it be either stretching, strolling, walking, jogging, biking, running, or even simply alternating between sitting and standing during TV commercials. Remember – sitting kills, moving heals.

Credit: Thanks to member Kathleen for the submission of the article on the hazards of sitting to me. This book is highly recommended for further reading on this issue – Sitting Kills, Moving Heals: How Everyday Movement Will Prevent Pain, Illness, and Early Death – and Exercise Alone Won’t by Joan Vernikos