Get off your backside! Why we should all sit less and move more

— by Adrienne Wyper


Photo: Claire Pepper Outfit: John Lewis


‘Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down,’ said Winston Churchill, who attributed his success in life to conserving his energy. That may have worked for the man running the country during WWII, but most of us – let’s be honest – have less demanding daily lives. And views on healthy habits change with time… so now, as my Pa (always ahead on health trends) used to say, ‘sitting is the new smoking’.

So what’s wrong with a nice sit-down?

The sitting vs smoking comparison is horrifyingly accurate, borne out by the annual deaths related to each: 78,000 smoking, 70,000 sitting. The NHS says that studies have linked inactivity to being overweight, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and early death. Sitting for too long (and the UK average is nine hours a day!) is reckoned to slow the metabolism, which impairs the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and break down fat. It also causes loss of muscle mass (already happening after the age of 30).

Our increased sitting-down tendencies during Covid are causing concern to medics. An international study revealed that even a few days of a sedentary lifestyle produces muscle wastage, insulin resistance, decreased aerobic capacity, fat deposition and low-grade systemic inflammation.

Get off your backside

Standing reduces the aforementioned health risks associated with sitting. Studies show that it burns a few more calories per hour than sitting, and blood sugar levels return to normal after eating faster.

Try standing up…

+…during ad breaks if you’re watching telly.

+…on the phone/FaceTime/Zoom.

+…to work, with a standing desk. I tried out a colleague’s upmarket one last summer. Pressing a button raised it smoothly to the right height (forearms parallel to the desk, top of the monitor level with your eyes). I alternated half an hour standing and half an hour sitting comfortably throughout the afternoon. Ikea has three sit/stand desks, from £150. Alternatively, improvise with a shelf or pile of boxes. And a raised work surface is also just the job for jigsaws, dressmaking, art or even eating.

+…by setting a timer to make you move every 25-30 minutes, whether you’re sitting reading, working, Zooming, watching TV, anything… When I’m working, I use the Pomodoro technique (Tomato Timer), a time-management method developed by Italian psychologist Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. I work for 25 minutes, it beeps, I take a five-minute break, then it beeps again and I get back to work. During that break I get up and do something else: weeding, chopping veg, playing with the cat, putting clothes away, painting my nails, washing my hair… (Why ‘pomodoro’ – Italian for tomato? Apparently Cirillo’s original timer came from his kitchen and was shaped like one.)


Go for a walk

The benefits of walking include: decreasing the risk of hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease as much as running does_ when done briskly; reducing the risk of heart failure in postmenopausal women, again, when done briskly: lowering blood sugar, decreasing blood pressure, and making waist size healthier, in middle-aged people who walked daily.

When I was commuting to work, I could rack up thousands of steps without trying. Walking to the station, then the office, going out at lunchtime, then the return journey… that ‘incidental walking’ added up to almost 10,000.

When I’m working from home (all the time currently), I can take as few as 1,000 steps, if I don’t leave my small house.

So if I don’t need to go out, I invent imaginary ‘must-do’ reasons to head out. These include: walking the dog (I have a cat), going to the station to pick up the Metro, and putting things in/taking things out of the car (usually parked at least 200 yards away). On my longer walks I usually listen to a podcast (like TNMA’s) music, radio or audiobook (find lots free on the BBC Sounds app).

Talking of walking, don’t get fixated on the 10,000-steps-a-day target. That is completely arbitrary, based on the name of a Japanese pedometer launched in 1964. Its name was manpokei; in Japanese ‘man’ means 10,000, ‘po’ means steps and ‘kei’ means meter. The number 10,000 was picked by Dr Yoshiro Hatano because he was worried that Japanese people were adopting the unhealthy American diet and lifestyle, and by walking 6,000 steps more than their 4,000-a-day average, people would burn an extra 500 calories a day, and so remain slim.

Short walks are worth the effort, too. A study of the NHS’s Active 10 programme based on three 10-minute walks a day, showed that participants found this target more achievable, and spent more time moving vigorously than the 10,000-steppers, with corresponding benefits for heart health, diabetes and some cancers.

But you don’t have to go for a walk, you can do anything at all, as long as it’s not sitting down: exercise, sports, hobbies, gardening… just get off your backside!


Adrienne Wyper is a health and lifestyle writer and regular TNMA contributor.

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