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Get up now or die sitting

columns Updated: Jul 21, 2013 02:16 IST

Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Fighting off fat is among life’s big challenges for most people and I’m often asked why some people seem to keep weight off so effortlessly while others appear to bloat up at the very thought of food.


More than a few studies now confirm that what you don’t do matters more than what you do.

Sitting around doing nothing — cellphone/tablet screentime, using your laptop, watching television… all count as nothing — can truncate your life and cause premature death even if you are among the handful of people who work-out regularly and eat healthy. The step in the right direction, then, is to get up and keep moving as much as you can.

It’s fairly well established that overweight people who are active are healthier than thinner ones who sit around most parts of the day. Irrespective of body weight, inactivity increases visceral fat (organ or intra-abdominal fat) that surrounds surrounding vital organs like the heart, liver or pancreas, which is as dangerous for your health as the more visible tiers on your belly or thighs, showed research from Imperial College, London, some years ago.

The study found that people who control weight through diet restriction rather than exercise have higher levels of visceral fat, even if they are visibly scrawny.

Just watching three hours of television can stave off two years from your life compared to people who are television-averse, projected researchers from the University of Queensland, Brisbane, using data from the television viewing habits of 8,800 adults.

Except sleeping, all kinds of inactivity may be just as harmful as watching television, be it reading a magazine or sitting behind a desk. The more you stay on your feet and off the chair or couch, the healthier you’ll be, report researchers from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

They found that people who “spontaneously” walked more through the day were fitter than their peers who led more textbook healthy lifestyles that included the prescribed regular workouts and nutritious food.

Sitting still triggers a cascade of metabolic changes in the body that begins with unused muscles atrophying and shifting from endurance-type muscle fibres that burn fat to fast-twitch ones that rely more on glucose. Inactive muscles also lose mitochondria, the energy-factories of cells, which help combust burn fat.

With the muscles relying more on carbohydrates for what little work they are doing, unburned fat accumulates in the blood and gets deposited in the liver and the intestine, which causes metabolic abnormalities and puts you at risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Not taking life sitting down brings the same benefits as structured workouts. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared the effects of lifestyle activity (walking more, taking stairs instead of the elevator) to a structured exercise programme (20-60 minutes of aerobic exercise 3-5 days a week) and found that two years later, both groups showed similar improvements in heart fitness, blood pressure-control and weight loss.

This is not to say working out does not bring benefits: it does. But the benefits last only if you don’t spend the rest of the day behind a desk tapping on keyboards. While low-intensity activities — strolling, standing talking, shopping, cooking, driving — counter the risk of sitting all day, vigorous exercise — working out, sweeping and swabbing, taking the stairs, running over 5/km an hr — improve health, provided of course, that they are done in different permutations-combinations several times a day through your week.

Just as targeting specific body parts for fat removal — whip-and-thigh diet, best-arm workout or the bums-and-tums workout, to name a few — doesn’t work, neither does concentrated bouts of activity followed by lethargy.

According to the American Council on Exercise, if you burn enough calories, it will make you lose fat from the entire body, with the last areas to become lean being the ones where you gain fat first (usually, the abdomen for men and hips and thighs for women). Too much sitting can counter the gains of diet and exercise, so get a move on it, beginning now.