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New research has found that not all forms of being sedentary are equal when it comes to the extent to which they put heart health at risk. Sitting on the couch, watching TV could increase heart risk more than sitting at a desk doing office work.

Sitting for long periods of time while watching TV was associated with a greater risk of heart disease and premature death, while sitting at work didn’t have that same link, according to a study published recently in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

We were really surprised. Most of us in the field thought that sitting is sitting no matter what you do, and it’s harmful whether it’s at work or at home watching TV,” lead author Keith Diaz, an assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University in New York City.

We already know that a sedentary lifestyle, in which a person sits down for long periods every day and gets little exercise, is bad for health in general and heart health in particular.

Researchers from the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City in this new study found that there is a difference between occupational sitting (sitting at work) and leisure time sitting (sitting at home, watching TV) in this new study.

The researchers worked specifically with a cohort of African American people, aiming to fill a gap in the research to date, which has primarily focused on white Europeans. Nevertheless, they believe that despite the specificity of the study cohort, the findings could apply to everyone, regardless of ethnicity.

The researchers analyzed data for a cohort of 3,592 participants who had enrolled in the Jackson Heart Study, a community-based study focused on the causes of cardiovascular, renal, and respiratory diseases among African Americans.

All of the participants lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and the health and lifestyle data available about them covered a period of 8.5 years. The information included how much time the participants spent sitting at work, as well as how much time they spent watching TV versus exercising in their spare time.

Diaz and team found that people who reported sitting and watching TV for 4 or more hours each day had a 50% higher risk of cardiovascular problems and premature death compared with individuals who sat in front of the television for 2 hours or less per day.

However, the same increase in risk did not apply when the hours of sitting took place at work — participants who sat for extended periods in the office did not have a higher cardiovascular risk than those who spent little time sitting at work.

And, the investigation revealed a — perhaps surprising — distinction: The time that a person spends sitting on the couch at home, watching TV, is much more likely to increase their risk of heart problems than the time they spend sitting at work.

Our findings show that how you spend your time outside of work may matter more when it comes to heart health," explains study author Keith Diaz, Ph.D. In fact, people who exercised in their leisure time eliminated the health risk linked with TV viewing, according to the researchers.

Researchers posit some potential explanations

First, sitting at work is different than lounging around while watching TV because in an office, people often get up from their desk to go to a printer, a meeting room or a co-worker’s desk. Previous research has shown such brief moments of movement, or “activity snacks,” can offset sitting risks.

But at home, people may sit on the couch for hours without moving.

Second, the timing of TV sitting may play a role.

“Most people in America go home, they have the largest meal of their day, which is dinner, and then they go and sit and watch TV for hours straight. The combination of a large meal and then sitting and not moving and doing anything with your muscles is just really toxic and harmful,” said Diaz.

A (potential) solution to the problem & some suggestions for lowering sitting health risks

The researchers suggest that replacing some TV downtime with moderate to vigorous exercise could counteract the increase in cardiovascular risk. The health risk of watching lots of TV (four or more hours each day) did not result in a heightened risk of heart health issues or premature death  for those individuals who spent 150 minutes or more per week doing moderate to vigorous activity—like brisk walking, running, swimming, or similar activities.

Some suggestions for lowering sitting health risks include: 

• If you can’t give up binge-watching Netflix, go exercise first. Aim for at least 150 minutes a week of any physical activity that raises your pulse and breathing rate.

• Take frequent movement breaks from your TV. Stand up every 30 minutes, walk somewhere and do something other than just sitting on the couch.

• If you sit for long periods of time at work, still try to accrue as much activity as you can throughout the day. Move every 30 minutes for at least one minute, as advised in previous research. Even light exercise accumulated in short bursts lasting just a few minutes can do your body good.

• If you can’t be active at all at work, be sure to undertake physical activity outside of it.

Although all of the participants in the study were African-Americans, the authors believe the findings would apply across all races.

For a more in-depth explanation about heart disease, go to:

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/237191.php

National physical activity guidelines can be accessed at:

https://health.gov/paguidelines/ 

Mark A. Mahoney, Ph.D. has been a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist for over 35 years and completed graduate studies in Nutrition & Public Health at Columbia University. He can be reached at marqos69@hotmail.com.

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