Why sitting is the new smoking

By Sheryl Smolkin

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Today I’m interviewing Avinash Maniram, a partner and senior group benefits consultant in the Vancouver office of PBI Actuarial Consultants. Avinash is a frequent speaker on health and wellness topics at educational seminars and industry conferences.

We are going to talk about the health implications of the sedentary lifestyle many of us lead. In particular we’ll learn why “sitting is the new smoking” from a health risk perspective and what we can do about it.

Q: So before we start, let’s look at some vocabulary. How would you define physical activity?

A: Well when we’re looking at physical activity from the perspective of the World Health Organization, we’re referring to undertaking at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of more vigorous exercise per week. Moderate exercise includes walking, swimming, mowing the lawn, washing your car or gardening.  Things like running and aerobics are characterized as vigorous exercise.

Q: So what’s the flip side, for example, physical inactivity?
A: Physical inactivity, is really the failure to achieve that guideline of either 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of more vigorous exercise per week.

Q: What would you consider to be a sedentary lifestyle?
A:  A sedentary lifestyle is one that’s involves an excessive amount of sitting throughout the day.

Q: We’ve been hearing a lot in the media lately about the health risks of sitting too much. Is sitting actually that bad and how much is too much?
A: Recently a lot more studies have shown direct correlations between sedentary lifestyles and the incidence of various types of diseases and heart conditions. Research from the University of Toronto indicates that the impact of sitting on a person’s lifestyle or their health really kicks in for those who have been spending at least eight hours a day in a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, the average Canadian adult spends close to 10  hours a day in a sedentary state.

Q: What actually happens to our body when we sit too much?
A: Our circulation system is really developed to operate when we are in motion so when we’re spending too much time in a sedentary state, our muscles are no longer load-bearing.  They begin to atrophy and they become weaker.

Q: You mentioned heart disease but what other health conditions can too much sitting trigger?
A: What the studies have shown is that a sedentary lifestyle can impact the risk of certain types of cancers, most predominantly colon cancer and breast cancer. In the case of cardiovascular disease in Canada, approximately 25% of all cases are directly linked to a sedentary lifestyle. There are also links to diabetes. In addition, the more sedentary your lifestyle, the more prone you are to anxiety and depression.

Q: What about the impact of sitting on mortality rates? By the way, I want you to know that since we’ve started talking I’ve decided I can do this interview standing just as well as I can do it sitting so I got up from my chair.
A: That’s fantastic. Statistics Canada and the Conference Board of Canada did a study which found that if we could lower the proportion of the time that we spend sitting or in the sedentary state by just 10%, that could result in a 30% lower risk of mortality.

Q: Does sedentary behavior also impact productivity?
A: It certainly does. You can imagine if you’re sitting at your desk in the usual crunched, hunched over thinking position, over time,  circulation is impacted and as a result your brain gets less oxygen. So colloquially I guess we would call this “foggy brain. Resulting  poor mental health and sore backs can also have an impact on productivity.

Q: The other thing that really surprised me is that sitting is viewed as an independent risk factor. So even if I’m getting my hundred and fifty minutes a week, that’s not enough if I sit all the time.
A: Absolutely. So much of the mainstream media has been focused on getting those 150 minutes of moderate activity in a week. But if you’re sitting at a desk for eight hours a day and then you head to the gym for one hour afterwards, that doesn’t undo the eight hours of damage caused by sitting. So for every 30 minutes of sitting we should be getting up and walking around for about five minutes. Those periodic intervals of activity do a lot more to reverse the damage done by a sedentary lifestyle.

Q: Are there any guidelines for the kind of activity we should be interspersing throughout the day and how frequently? Can you give me some examples?
A: This is the neat thing. So often when we go to sessions or we read about these things, the solutions often times are so impractical that it puts them out of reach. This is one of the areas where the fixes are actually quite simple. One of the things that we can do is we can set up some mental triggers so when the phone rings, if you’re in the office, instead of taking that call sitting down you can stand up.

If you are in an office tower you can walk up or down the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Another obvious one is limiting the amount of time that you spend watching TV. For those in office settings, instead of sending an e-mail to your colleague across the floor or instead of phoning to ask them a question,  get up and walk over to have that discussion.

Q: What if any guidelines are there for parents with children who want to ensure that their kids are sufficiently active?
A: Well this is one of the biggest challenges that we have right now. If you look at the guidelines for children, they should be getting at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day. The experts also recommend less than two hours of screen time daily.

One suggestion is to replace the video games with outdoor activities. Sometimes you can use it as a bargaining chip. Often I find that when the kids go outside, I end up having to call them back in, because they’ve forgotten about their screens and they’re back to being playful children again.

Q: What about standing or adjustable desks or treadmill desks? How useful are they and how can employees convince their employers to pilot them or make them available?
A: Well on the surface they are very useful because they combat the immediate problem which sitting at the desk for eight hours a day. When you’re trying to sell the idea of an adjustable desk to your employer, try to convince the company that this is the right thing to do. You really just need to point to the health benefits — less time off work and less presenteeism for those who probably should be off work but insist on coming in everyday. The studies have shown that there is really no decrease to productivity with standing desks.

Q: You’ve been doing a lot of work on the impact of sedentary lifestyles. You’ve made some changes in the lives of yourself and your children. You are also a partner in your firm. Are your colleagues getting the message and have you been the catalyst for some of these changes in your own office?
A: We did a presentation on the impact of sedentary living and you could see the light bulbs go off in people’s minds. It’s something that’s really taken our little office by storm.

We see the message is getting through, just judging by the number of associates who have requested standing desks. They are not mandatory by any means but if an associate wants one we will certainly make it happen.

I’ve also noticed a lot more in-person meetings and fewer phone calls and e-mails to discuss work with our colleagues. When I do performance reviews, we go for walk, we go outside to have the discussion. Whenever there are smaller internal meetings, we may get up, buy a water or something and come back to the office and finish up.

Thanks for chatting with me today Avinash on this fascinating topic. My pleasure Sheryl.

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Avinash Maniram, PBI Actuarial Consultants Ltd.

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This is the edited version of the transcript of a podcast recorded in November 2016.

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