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Why Too Much Sitting Down Isn't Helping Your Health

And how incidental activity can help.

07/02/2017 6:27 AM AEDT | Updated 07/02/2017 7:25 AM AEDT

You're a 20 or 30-something office worker who enjoys a regular gym session. You're sleeping well (up to 8 hours per day), and you're fitting in 30-60 minutes of moderate to vigorous active several days a week.

You're meeting the government recommendations for physical activity ... right?

Well, technically, yes. But what about the other 15 hours of the day?

"That's the smoking gun of this conversation. We're talking about those hours of the day that sit outside of sleeping and engaging in planned exercise," exercise physiologist Dr Bill Sukala told The Huffington Post Australia.

"In those 15 hours, we have an opportunity to waste energy or we have a tremendous amount of opportunity to sit."

Historically, we viewed activity as one single spectrum... What we now recognise is that the spectrum runs either way. There are levels of physical activity.

As incidental activity is rapidly engineered out of our lives, and sedentary behaviours continue to take its place, research shows us which side of the fence most Australians are sitting on. According to the department of health, approximately 70 percent of adults are physically inactive.

"These recommendations are meant to be adhered to independent of or in addition to incidental activity. When we dig into it, there's a host of research that asks this question and a significant proportion of the population are not meeting them," Sukala said.

"One to five percent of an adult's day is spent in moderate to vigorous activity of any kind and 0.5 to 1 percent of this is sustained for at least ten minutes."

And it's something that he argues we need to hold on to.

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Too much of this.

What even is incidental activity?

Incidental activity involves the energy that we expend by virtue of daily living.

"If you're up on your feet doing chores, gardening or taking the kids to school, these are all activities that we partake in in our daily life," Sukala said.

"The main point of differentiation is that planned exercise is something that we go out of our way to do. Incidental movements don't fall under this bracket."

That doesn't mean they're not helping.

"People believe that in order for physical activity to be useful, they need to be breaking a sweat. This isn't the case. Incidental activity is a piece of the puzzle, and while it isn't going to necessarily make you fit, it certainly has added benefits from a health perspective," Sukala said.

Too little exercise, too much sitting

Sitting is the most common sedentary behaviour of adults. We all know this, because we can sit for many hours at a time on any (or every) day of year.

We've arrived at a point in history where we now have to stand up to take a break.

What you may not know about are the dire implications this can have.

A 2014 study surveyed 4,000 people aged 25 and over about their active and sedentary behaviours -- like self reported television viewing time (a common surrogate for sitting).

"These were 'healthy people' who were performing weekly hours of physical exercise consistent with the activity guidelines. Despite this, the amount of time they spent in front of the television was associated with increased metabolic risk, including increased weight circumference and higher glucose levels," Sukala said.

"Again, the combination of all of these things can increase a person's risk in developing metabolic diseases such as heart disease."

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And more of this.

How can we manage this risk?

Simply by getting out of that office chair. Seriously.

"When a person gets up and out of a chair, just by virtue of being upright and gravity-bearing, the load on our postural muscles activates structures and enzymes in the muscle that help them to work as sugar and fat sponges," Sukala said.

These are known as GLUT4 (a glucose transporter) and lipase (an enzyme that breaks down fats in food) and become active independent of insulin and weight.

"This helps to siphon fat and sugar out of the bloodstream which in turn reduces the risk of these common lifestyle diseases," Sukala said.

How can we ramp up our incidental activity?

Implement 'planned incidental activity'.

This may seem simple, but the effects are accumulative. Take 'active transport'.

"You could jump on a bus to get to work, or you go jump on a bike. Or, take the train to a certain point and walk the rest."

Incorporate sedentary breaks.

"It has been proven that people who take more frequent breaks actually have an improvement in their metabolic health," Sukala said.

"Spend more time standing doing light movement, even if you're in an office."

Try out a height-adjustable desk or a standing work station.

"You're not meant to stand for the entire 8-hour day. That can be hard on the body. So take breaks between sitting and standing -- and gradually progress yourself onto longer periods of standing," Sukala said.

"It should feel good to sit down at the end of the day."

Be wary of fitness devices.

"Whilst I support the use of wearable metrics, I would advise using them sparingly based on a person's views and their background," Sukala said.

"They can be incredibly motivating for some, but for those with less of a history with physical activity who are unconditioned, they can also work to demotivate."

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