Sitting Disease: Why Women are at a Greater Risk

The evidence is piling up: Sitting is hazardous to women's health. The scientific community has even coined the term 'sitting disease'

Sitting Disease: Why Women are at a Greater Risk

If you’re sitting down as you read this, you may be slowly killing yourself. Sounds harsh, but it’s true: Sitting for six hours or more can increase your risk of dying from major diseases, including cancer.

The evidence has been growing for a few years now, with the most recent coming this past summer from the ongoing American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II (CPS II). And it seems women are at higher risk: Thirty-seven percent face a greater chance of death compared to those who spend less than three hours on their tushes.

This new finding adds fuel to the recent analysis from the University Health Network in Toronto that looked at 47 studies examining the relationship between sitting and mortality. The findings concluded that people who sit too much every day are at an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and shorter life spans ‘ even if they exercise.

It’s not only sitting at a desk but also lounging in front of the TV that can lead to major health risks. In 2010, the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study, which followed subjects for an average of just over six years, found that death rates were significantly higher for adults who spent more time watching TV. This was the first study to link viewing time with mortality. Results showed that every hour spent sitting in front of the TV can increase your risk of dying earlier ‘ by 11 percent for all causes of death, by 18 percent for cardiovascular death and by nine percent for cancer death.

The ‘Sitting Disease’

When you sit for long periods, your muscles aren’t contracting, which disrupts blood flow, according to David Dunstan, co-author of the 2010 Australian study.

‘Adults who sit or lie down for several hours at a stretch experience big reductions in insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, as well as increased amounts of fat in their blood,’ adds Travis Saunders, a certified exercise physiologist and PhD graduate from the University of Ottawa who studies the health impact of sedentary behaviour. Those changes can cause Type 2 diabetes. And once that develops, it greatly increases the risk of blood clots or heart attack. As well, when you sit for long periods of time without taking a break to get up and walk around, a protein called fibrinogen increases. It’s the major risk factor for deep vein thrombosis and cardiovascular disease.

As for the link to cancer, Christine Friedenreich, a research scientist with Alberta Health Services, says that, while studies connecting sedentary behaviour and cancer are in their infancy, increased activity has been shown to reduce C-reactive protein. This biomarker, when elevated, puts people at higher risk for certain cancers, such as breast and colon cancers. Right now, most research has simply shown that increased physical activity can greatly reduce people’s risk of cancer, but it hasn’t honed in directly on the negative effects of sitting for too long.

However, the new CPS II shows that a distinct connection between the two is emerging, noting that people who sit for great lengths of time and don’t exercise regularly face even greater mortality rates than those who just sit ‘ a startling 94 percent higher for women and 48 percent higher for men.

Stand Up For Yourself

Mark Tremblay, founder of the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network and director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, recommends a combination of standing, sitting and taking breaks. ‘A sit-stand combination is actually better than just sitting or just standing,’ he says. ‘If you stand too long, your back will get sore, blood will pool in your feet and you’ll feel lightheaded.’

The 2010 Australian study suggests that overweight and obese adults can lower their glucose and insulin levels after a meal by taking a break involving light- to moderate-intensity walking. ‘Even among healthy adults, activity breaks throughout the day ‘ for example, two-minute walks every 20 minutes ‘ are good for you and even necessary,’ explains Dunstan.

Find simple ways to move more throughout the day here.

Related content:

Secrets to Staying Healthy & Happy


The travelling chef: Adventures in Puglia

Best Health contributor and fresh food chef, Paul Finkelstein, is currently on a culinary adventure in Italy with a group of high school students from across Canada. When he’s not cooking and eating his way through various regions of the food-loving country, he’ll be sharing the highlights of his pilgrimage with us here on the […]


Best Health Magazine: March/April 2014

Looking for the tips and advice we mentioned in the March/April 2014 issue of Best Health? Find more on the topics covered in the magazine and share your thoughts with us right here


News: The activity that can give you younger skin

If you want young, radiant-looking skin, it’s time to lace up your running shoes and tune up your bike. A new study shows that cardio exercise not only keeps skin looking younger – it can also reverse skin aging.Researchers from McMaster University found that, starting at age 40, study volunteers who exercised regularly had skin […]


Eastern Salad

Based on fattoush (the colourful, crunchy salad served throughout the Middle East), this version adds tuna for extra flavour and protein.


Do cough medications work?

Can’t stop coughing? If you are like more than 40 percent of Canadians, you will reach for an over-the-counter cough medicine to find relief