How dangerous is prolonged sitting with diabetes? What can we do to reduce the damage caused by sitting?
Several studies have found that prolonged sitting is an important risk factor for stroke, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Sitting raised risks of several types of cancer and raised death rates by 24% in this analysis of 47 studies. Other research shows that sitting for long periods raises blood glucose levels.
Part of this effect may be due to lack of exercise, but exercise alone won’t fix it. You also have to break up the sitting times. David A. Alter, MD, PhD, author of the analysis mentioned above, said, “It is not good enough to exercise for 30 minutes a day and be sedentary for 23 1/2 hours.”
I’m concerned about this. Because of my disability, I have to sit or lie almost all day. But even people who can move rarely do it while at work or watching screens or reading.
The most important time to move may be right after eating. A study from the University of Leicester found subjects had big rises in after-meal glucose during prolonged seated time. These people reduced their sugars by “breaking up this sedentary time with light-intensity activity,” according to lead author Matthew McCarthy, MSc.
The Leicester subjects did not get up and walk. They operated an “arm ergometer,” like spinning a set of bicycle pedals with their hands, for 5 minutes every 30 minutes.
Walking a bit every 30–60 minutes has also proven helpful in many studies. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, “A 2012 study in Diabetes Care indicated that interrupting sitting time with short bouts of walking lowers blood sugar (glucose) and insulin levels in overweight or obese adults. A 2015 study…demonstrated that short bouts of activity improved the function of blood vessels.”
How to sit
Some doctors believe there’s nothing especially bad about sitting. Lying down would be just as bad, because the problem is not moving enough. Standing is better, because standing involves the big muscles of the legs and back, burning up a lot of sugar.
But activity may not be the whole story. When sitting, your legs are hanging down. Blood may pool there, slowing circulation.
Physical therapist Erica Pitsch, PT, MPT, DPT, NCS, says “When you sit in a chair too long, you turn into a chair.” You won’t move as well when you get up. Organs may slump out of their best position in the body. You’ll develop aches, pains, and stiffness.
Sitting with good posture may make a huge improvement in the way you feel. According to the Australian site ergonomics.com, the height of the chair and desk are critical. Feet should be flat; knees at or slightly lower than hip level, shoulders comfortable.
You should sit back as far as you can in the chair. Both lower and upper back should be supported. (Use pillows if necessary.) If you’re working, get the chair very close to the desk, so you’re not leaning forward.
Break up sitting time. Stand up or do arm exercises every 30 minutes, or more often than that. If you can’t stand, try these seated exercises, or lie down with your legs slightly elevated to restore circulation.
Various types of workday exercise are well described in this article by Jacquelyn Smith.
To me, the most important thing is to keep moving. Shift positions, straighten up, stand, move around occasionally. That’s what keeps blood flowing and gets glucose into your cells where it wants to be.
Want to learn more about sitting and diabetes? Read “Exercise Does Not Negate Health Risks of Too Much Sitting” and “‘Stand Up’ to Type 2 Diabetes.”
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David Spero: David Spero has been a nurse for 40 years and has lived with multiple sclerosis for 30 years. He is the author of four books: The Art of Getting Well: Maximizing Health When You Have a Chronic Illness (Hunter House 2002), Diabetes: Sugar-coated Crisis — Who Gets It, Who Profits, and How to Stop It (New Society 2006, Diabetes Heroes (Jim Healthy 2014), and The Inn by the Healing Path: Stories on the road to wellness (Smashwords 2015.) He writes for Diabetes Self-Management and Pain-Free Living (formerly Arthritis Self-Management) magazines. His website is www.davidsperorn.com. His blog is TheInnbytheHealingPath.com.
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