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Whether it’s at an office desk, behind the wheel of a car, or on the couch watching TV, many Americans spend the majority of their days sitting down. But new research gives us a good reason to get up: Simply sitting less and standing more may improve our health.
A review published in January 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that excessive sedentary time, or time spent sitting down, was linked to an increased risk for type 2 diabetes as well as other conditions, including obesity, cancer, and heart disease — regardless of whether or not participants exercised.
The findings aren’t surprising, says Tim Morley, DO, an integrative medicine doctor and diabetes specialist at New York Health and Wellness in Harrison, N.Y. Even if you’re regularly active, sitting for long periods of time in between bouts of activity means less expended energy, which can set off a chain of events in the body that may eventually lead to diabetes, he explains.
“Your body uses glucose, or blood sugar, for energy,” Dr. Morley says. “Normally, insulin is secreted when you have glucose floating around in your blood. It tells your cells to let the glucose in. But if you have a lot of glucose sitting around that you don’t need, the cells say ‘We don’t need this; let’s be resistant to the insulin.’ Over time insulin resistance and the buildup of blood glucose can lead to type 2 diabetes.”
In addition, Morley says, people who are insulin-resistant also tend to be resistant to the hormone leptin — the hormone that sends a signal to your brain when you’ve eaten enough food. The weakened effect of leptin can lead to constant feelings of hunger, increasing the likelihood of weight gain, another risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
These are worrisome prospects if you work a desk job or do other activities that leave you sitting for long periods. The bright side, however, is that standing, even for a few minutes at a time, can go a long way toward protecting your overall health. Just leaving your chair periodically throughout the day and spending five minutes walking up and down steps or around the block revs your metabolism and prompts it to use insulin for energy, says Janice Miller, CDE, a certified diabetes educator and director of the adult gerontology program at the Thomas Jefferson University School of Nursing in Philadelphia.
Try these suggestions for sneaking in more on-your-feet time during each day:
Park and walk.Instead of circling the grocery store parking lot for the closest space, pick a spot that’s far away and walk the additional distance, suggests Brian Ballard, CDE, a certified diabetes educator with CareMore in Cerritos, California. Or, if you live close by, forgo the car completely and make the trip on your bike or by foot.
Take an active break.At work, resist the urge to chain yourself to your desk — step out every hour to 90 minutes for a quick walk, Miller says. An outside session is always nice, but if that’s not possible, improvise. “Find some stairs and take a few flights up and down,” she suggests.
Work on your feet.Who says all work must be done sitting down? Think creatively and find ways to stand up while doing tasks simultaneously, Morley suggests. “When you’re on the phone, stand up,” he says. “Instead of emailing a colleague, walk over to his desk.” You’ll break up the monotony of your day, and your co-worker might appreciate the face-to-face time. Or forgo the chair altogether and opt for a standing desk.
Turn TV time into exercise time.Buck the couch potato stereotype and use your time in front of the tube to get in a little activity. This could be just standing up while you watch, or it could be something more. “I had a client who put on sneakers before she watched TV,” Miller says. “Every time the commercials came on, she would power-walk in place. You don’t realize just how many commercials there are until you do this!”
Gab on the go.With wireless phones, there’s no excuse to stay tethered in one place while you talk. When you want to reach out to a friend, Ballard suggests dialing their number and walking around your neighborhood during the conversation. “You can get some social interaction while performing mild exercise,” he says.
Although it’s beneficial to stand more throughout the day, remember that regular physical activity outside of just standing up is also an important component of diabetes management. The American Diabetes Association recommends working about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise into your day five days a week.
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