Fit or Fiction: Can Standing Help Me Lose Weight?Posted on May 11th 2010 1:00PM by Liz Neporent
Is sitting really so bad for my health? And if I spent more time standing would it help me lose weight? -- Amanda, N.J.
I have a beautiful pine desk with lots of workspace and a top-of-the-line chair in my office. Everything I need for work is within arm's reach or just a short chair-roll away. And yet, for the past few weeks, I have been working on a cramped counter top near my kitchen with no chair. The arrangement requires me to stand most of the day and take several trips an hour to my desk to get the resources and materials I need.
Why would I do this? Because I am convinced that sitting is killing me. It's making it harder to maintain a healthy weight and keep my muscles toned and it's upping my risk of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. It could be doing the same to you.
Scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed about what sitting for extended periods of time does to the body, even if you are a dedicated exerciser like I am. A recent editorial published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by Swedish scientists suggested that we factor the amount of time spent sitting -- and not just the amount of time we spend in formal exercise -- into daily physical activity considerations. Prolonged sitting promotes a lack of whole-body muscle movement, which the researchers said is the true definition of sedentary behavior. Think about how much time you spend parked on your butt: commuting to work, at your desk, eating meals, going to the movies or the theater, watching TV, playing video games or surfing the Internet. Chances are, you even drive to the gym to spend an hour or so working up a sweat and doing something good for your heart and muscles.
Sitting may seem harmless because it's so comfortable. But in terms of calorie burn, it's a disaster. Sitting at your desk burns about 80 calories an hour whereas standing burns about 115 calories an hour. A 35 calorie per hour difference may seem paltry until you do the math. For arguments sake, let's say you spend about five hours a day in your chair (though a U.S. survey in 2003 to 2004 found Americans spend more than half their time sitting). Over the course of the day, that's a missed opportunity to expend about 175 calories (the equivalent of one pancake 6-inches in diameter, no syrup or butter). Multiply that out for an entire year and it equals nearly 64,000 calories you didn't burn or a corresponding 18 pounds you either gained or didn't lose. (For more on calories burned and consumed, click on our calorie estimator tool.)
In 2005, researchers at the Mayo clinic found an even greater difference. The heavier subjects they studied tended to sit more than leaner ones who were more fidgety and spent an average of two additional hours a day on their feet. The difference translated into 350 calories a day, enough for the heavy people to prevent a gain of, or take off, 35 pounds a year!
But it goes deeper than that. Although scientists admit the relationship between sitting and health needs further study, it appears that muscle movement and muscle contractions play a role in controlling important blood fats. After four hours of sitting, the genes and enzymes regulating the amount of glucose and fat in the body start to shut down. Instead, fat in the blood stream appears to be captured and stored by fat cells all throughout the body but especially around organs such as the kidneys -- in terms of disease risk, this is a very dangerous place for fat to settle.
Many scientists who study the issue are recommending that you stand as much as possible or at least get up and move frequently. Some people are taking it one step further, literally. A growing number of converts are spending their work hours strolling along on treadmill desks or treadputers. The object is not to work up a sweat while you crunch numbers or write a report, nor is it to abandon your daily sweat session, but rather to increase your calorie burn and muscle usage gently over the course of the day. The usual recommendation is to amble along at about .7 mph or about one step per second. After you get used to this, most say you barely notice you're moving and the calorie burn now bumps up to about 125 per hour. Once again, using an average of five hours a day, this could help manage over 65 pounds a year -- with a barely noticeable effort.
If you already have a treadmill in your apartment or office that's been collecting dust, consider spending the $39 to convert it into a walking desk. You may not want to start out hardcore, strolling along every minute of your day, but even if you only jump on it to watch TV or talk on the phone, think of the possibilities for your waistline and overall health.
Also worth a mention: A few weeks ago I wrote about how screen eating may be a contributing factor to the dangers of sitting. You may recall I pointed out the tendency for people to eat more and make worse choices when they mindlessly shovel food into their pie holes like when they are sitting and staring into a screen of some sort. So it's likely that you're not only burning fewer calories when you sit, you are also taking in more, too.
Since we've done such a good job wringing every last bit of movement out of our environment we need all the help we can get in terms of weight loss and overall health. Taking a stand might the answer. Certainly, I am not suggesting you give up on a formal exercise program (please don't!), but I am curious to know if anyone else is attempting to stand more and if so, have they seen a difference? I would love for someone who is using a treadmill desk to post a comment here or tweet me @lizzyfit to describe their experience. I've recommended this strategy to clients with good results and it's something I'm seriously considering doing myself if I can find an extra cubic centimeter to spare in my NYC apartment.