Are you at risk for “sitting disease”?

One expert explains why exercise alone won’t prevent it

Have you heard that “sitting is the new smoking”?

A sedentary lifestyle has been implicated in heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. It’s possible to quit smoking (I know how hard that is – I’ve done it). But how do you quit sitting? That’s hardly practical.

Recent articles about health problems associated with prolonged sitting prompted me to re-read Sitting Kills, Moving Heals by Joan Vernikos, PhD., former Director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division.

After just a few days in space astronauts exhibit symptoms we usually associate with aging: decreased muscle mass and bone density; increased fatigue; slower movement and reaction times; aching joints; slowed metabolism; decreased immune function; disturbances in sleep and balance. Once they resume their normal lives on earth they recover very quickly. Through her studies Vernikos found that immobilization mimics the effects of space travel and concluded it was due to what she calls GDS (gravity deprivation syndrome).

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) reports that prolonged sitting is a health risk in itself. Even getting the recommended amount of exercise will not make up for a sedentary lifestyle. Prolonged sitting was found to be detrimental even to those who are physically active. But taking breaks from sitting – just getting up from your chair for a few minutes every hour – can help.

So exercise alone is not the answer! Not only do we need to move, but we need to move in gravity.

We have different types of muscles: cardiac, smooth, and skeletal. Skeletal muscles attach to bones. Skeletal muscle is also called voluntary muscle because it is under our conscious control through the nervous system. Depending on how they are being used, skeletal muscles can be classified as mobilizers (allowing us to move, through contracting and relaxing) or stabilizers (supporting the body). Stabilizing muscles are called on to be active for longer periods of time than mobilizing muscles. If stabilizing muscles are weak, everyday tasks can become painful and difficult; it may be hard to maintain posture and position of the body. The condition of stabilizing muscles is a factor in allowing a person to remain independent as he ages.

Skeletal muscle is further divided into two types, based on whether they are fast or slow to contract. Type I muscle fibers are “slow twitch” and Type II muscle fibers are “fast twitch.” Each type is affected by different activity. Type I and II both respond to structured exercise, but only the Type II respond to non-exercise, normal daily activities.

NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is energy we use doing anything other than eating, sleeping, and sports-like exercise; NEAT muscular movements are small and brief but frequent, occurring throughout the day. Vernikos says the most effective NEAT activity is simply changing positions – just standing up, or fidgeting, or bending to pick up something.

You can make NEAT work for you by:

  • Getting up hourly from your chair
  • Getting up and moving around during commercials on TV
  • Standing up and moving around while talking on the phone
  • Turning on some music and dancing around while housecleaning
  • Getting an exercise ball to sit on at work or at home
  • Raising your heels off the floor while sitting (you could put a book on your knees to add some resistance to the movement)

Vernikos’ book includes what she calls “G-habits.” She considers Stand Up:Sit Down to be the most important one: find or create reasons to stand up frequently; stand up slowly and don’t lean on or push against anything to help you; sit down very slowly, and keep good posture throughout.

The Industrial Revolution and resulting convenience devices have allowed us to become too sedentary. Sitting really is the new smoking! And exercise alone is not the answer!



Vernikos, J., 2011, Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, Quill Driver Books, Fresno, CA.



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