There are lots of good reasons to sit down these days, and unfortunately for our hearts one of them is good television. There’s just so much of it!
But if you’re also sitting for hours at a desk job too then you’re getting a double dose of badness.
Sitting down for too long has been shown by many studies to be bad for your heart health, but the latest one on the subject now reveals that one of these reasons to sit is worse for you than the other.
The new study appears in the Journal of the American Heart Association and it was authored by researchers from the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City.
They were curious about how sitting affects our hearts. Were couch potatoes going to have more heart problems than desk jockeys at work or fewer?
Luckily, they didn’t have to set up a study of their own because the information they were after was already available.
The Jackson Heart Study had previously looked at a whole host of health issues in 3,592 African American people from Jackson, Mississippi. Participants had filled in questionnaires that told researchers about how much or how little physical activity they generally did.
As part of this they kept a record of their television viewing time, and also time spent sitting at work, two figures which were gold for the present researchers.
They were able to divide the television viewers into five groups, on a scale that went from least to most time spent watching. Some people watched less than one hour per week while at the other extreme some of them watched more than four hours every day.
The researchers also did the same for the workers. They divided them into those who said that they sat down “never”, “seldom”, “sometimes”, “often”, or “always”.
Their physical activity was measured in terms of how much exercise they got each week and how intense it was.
It’s worth noting that the study didn’t just take a snapshot. It ran for 8.5 years, so we can be pretty sure that all the data gathered is a true representation of these people’s behavior.
The findings were interesting. People who sat watching television for four or more hours per day had a 49 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease and early death than folks who watched for two or fewer hours per day. So, no big surprise there then.
What did come as a surprise was that the people who sat at work showed quite different results. Those who reported that they sat “always” or “often” at work were no more likely to have cardiovascular problems or die prematurely than those were who reported “never” sitting at work or “seldom” sitting.
So why was sitting down to watch TV worse for their health than sitting down at work? The thinking is that television watchers might be more likely to sit for long periods without being interrupted, while some desk workers may get more opportunities to move around, like when they visit a co-worker or fetch files, for example.
It’s also more likely that television watchers will eat a big meal before they sit down and once they’ve put their feet up the potato chips and other unhealthy snacks often come out too.
That’s not something that office workers would generally be doing, so perhaps the food component helps to explain why there wasn’t any variation in consequences between the different frequencies of workplace sitting.
Not all sit-down jobs are healthy, of course. Truck drivers can’t move around and may end up eating more than they should just to relieve the boredom of the road.
But the good news from the study is that moderate or vigorous physical activity for 150 minutes per week eliminated the heart disease risk for everyone. Even the people who watched television for four or more hours per week cut their chances of heart trouble to zero if they also exercised for those three and a half hours a week.
The chief takeaway from this is that moderate or vigorous exercise can take away a lot of the health risks from your next box set binge.