2017-04-21 / Front Page

Is sitting the new smoking?

Lack of movement can cause health problems
By Hector Gonzalez


FROZEN IN PLACE—Health experts warn of the potential problems faced by those who sit for long periods, a common practice for many who work desk jobs. FROZEN IN PLACE—Health experts warn of the potential problems faced by those who sit for long periods, a common practice for many who work desk jobs. Tied to their desks, millions of U.S. workers sit for hours, often through their lunch breaks, only to go home at night and sit several hours more at screens playing video games or watching TV.

If smoking was once America’s favorite fatal pastime, sitting could be its newest bad habit.

Although smoking is down to around 17 percent of U.S. adults, compared to more than 42 percent in 1965 when there were no laws against lighting up in restaurants and public places, people sit for longer periods than ever these days, said Dr. Gregory Albaugh, a vascular surgeon at St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo and Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks.

“In America, people don’t walk anywhere. We drive to work and sit in a chair, do stuff, come home, watch the evening news sitting down, eat dinner and drink a little wine sitting down, then we go to bed,” said Albaugh, who has offices in Camarillo and Simi Valley.

“Some of these jobs are hot points for this: office workers, or just anyone who has to sit for long periods of times, or if your job involves standing on your feet for long periods without walking.”

On average, U.S. adults spend six to eight hours a day sitting, with those 60 and older averaging 8.5 to 9.6 hours per day sitting, according to an August 2016 science advisory by the American Heart Association.

That study and others concluded that long periods of doing nothing but sitting, which researchers refer to as prolonged sedentary time, lead to a host of illnesses and health problems that can kill.

A big one is obesity, which contributes to diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and heart and coronary disease, the American Heart Association said.

Smoking is still the leading preventable cause of death among Americans, killing more than 480,000 people a year. But obesity and being overweight are close behind, accounting for an estimated 300,000 deaths a year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Although there are no studies to be found online that compare the hazards of smoking to the dangers of sitting for long periods, lung cancer deaths decreased significantly, by 2 percent per year, during a 10- year period from 2003 to 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obesity rates, meanwhile, have risen steadily, exceeding 20 percent of adults in all states in 2015. By comparison, in 1985 no state had an adult obesity rate higher than 15 percent, the CDC’s data shows.

A study released in January 2015, “Too Much Sitting and Chronic Disease Risk: Steps to Move the Science Forward,” published in Annals of Internal Medicine, concluded “that sedentary behavior contributes to all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer death as well as the incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.”

Even with exercise factored in, the researchers found, sitting for long periods can be bad for people’s health.

“The implications of these findings are far-reaching,” the study said. “Sedentary behavior is ubiquitous. Society is engineered, physically and socially, to be sitting-centric. In our workplaces, homes, common methods of transportation, and recreational venues, we are required or encouraged to sit.”

Scientists and engineers in recent years have come up with apps that remind workers to get up at intervals and stretch and exercise, and desks that let workers stand, walk or pedal in place. But independent researchers are only now studying the effectiveness of these products; the verdict is still out, the American Heart Association study said.

Looking at the various devices now on the market, a study published in August 2015 in the journal Preventive Medicine found that treadmill desks led to the best health improvements among office workers compared to standing desks.

Researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, meanwhile, studied the postures of sitters and concluded that slouching while sitting can make a person feel sad and depressed.

“Upright posture improves self- esteem and mood” in healthy people as well as those diagnosed with depression, the July 2016 study found.

Aside from the health risks of too much sitting, a lack of movement can also lead to venous insufficiency, a condition Albaugh sees often in his patients, he said.

It happens when the valves in the veins stop working, causing blood to pool in the legs.

Venous insufficiency is a fairly common condition among Americans, affecting about 40 percent of adults, especially women who’ve been pregnant multiple times and seniors.

The heart isn’t the only pump in our bodies. The calf muscles and the veins within them form the calf muscle pump, which acts as the heart’s lower-body helper, Albaugh said.

“A lot of those valves (in the veins in the legs) rely on walking, because when you’re walking, the muscles in your legs, particularly your calves, squeeze on these veins and kind of push the blood into the next valve and open it up,” the doctor said. “The calf pump helps get the blood out of your veins.”

People with venous insufficiency feel aching and fatigue in the legs, experience swelling and sometimes get varicose veins.

Albaugh had some advice.

“If you don’t move, things stop working,” he said. “Our bodies were made for motion. Move a little bit every day.”

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