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Are Chairs Giving Us Diabetes?

09 December 2018

Years ago, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to see an office scene like this:

In fact, a whole office of co-workers who were standing may have raised some eyebrows.

Now, however, standing desks are the fastest-growing employee benefit in US workplaces according to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management.

This may be due in part to research that now suggests that sitting for long periods of time has been linked to multiple health complications, including the development of type II diabetes, a disease that occurs when your blood sugar is too high.

Consistently high blood sugar levels can lead to serious diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels, as well as causing damage to the kidneys, eyes, and nerves. These complications can lead to death, making diabetes the 7th leading cause of death in the United States.

Those who take the initiative to stand while working might just be on to something.

But what exactly is diabetes, how does prolonged sitting increase our risk, and what can we do about it?

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes occurs when the body is unable to make a hormone called insulin or cannot make good use of the insulin it produces.

Insulin ensures that sugar is both used and stored properly, which in turn works to keep your blood sugar from getting too high.

Type I diabetes occurs when the body doesn’t make insulin at all. This is usually diagnosed in childhood or as a young adult.

Type II diabetes, which is the type that we will be focusing on, occurs when your body doesn’t use insulin properly. It is usually related to lifestyle choices such as improper diet and lack of exercise, and now, we can add periods of prolonged sitting to the mix.

In fact, a sedentary lifestyle is linked to a 91% increased risk of developing type II diabetes, studies suggest. But why?

How exactly does sitting lead to diabetes?

One theory between the correlation of prolonged periods of sitting and the development of diabetes is that your body needs to work harder while sitting in order to absorb sugar and make insulin.

UCLA professor Toni Yancey shares what exactly is happening when we are sitting for those extended periods of time:

“Sitting shuts down electrical activity in the legs. It makes the body less sensitive to insulin, causes calorie-burning to plummet, and slows the breakdown of dangerous blood fats, lowering ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.”

Despite this, Americans still spend a lot of time sitting.

A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that adults in the US spend an average of 55 percent of their waking hours sitting. This included time spent driving in a car, working at a desk, and sitting on the couch.

Technology has simply made it easier for us to sit. We send off emails quickly with the tap of our fingers instead of walking to a post office or finding our colleague down the hallway. We sit through drive-thrus to get our morning coffee before sitting through a long day of meetings.

And at home?… Americans over the age of 15 reportedly watched over three hours of television per day on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Historically, it was thought that 9/10 cases of diabetes could be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, refraining from smoking, and a regular exercise regimen, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

However, with the rise of number hours spent sitting, the evidence that prolonged immobility increases the risk of type II diabetes, as well as other health conditions such as heart disease and obesity, continues to accumulate. And exercise alone isn’t going to fix the problem.

Even if you get the recommended amount of weekly exercise, exercise alone doesn’t negate the damage done by extended periods of sitting. Professor Marc Hamilton, Ph.D. tells Men’s Health, “The cure for too much sitting isn’t more exercise.”

In addition to regular diet and exercise, diabetes prevention has to involve less time sitting. We need to break up those marathon-sitting sessions by introducing more movement into our days.

Don’t just sit there!

In order to combat the risk of diabetes and other health conditions, it’s essential to develop a movement-based lifestyle that lasts throughout the entire day, at both at work and at home.

Investing in a standing desk or an exercise desk bike is an excellent first step in getting the body up and moving. When we stand, we use large muscles which improves posture, stimulates blood flow, and has a positive effect on how the body uses and stores sugars and fats.

Dr. Joan Vernikos explains, “Every time you stand up, the body initiates a shift in fluids, volume, and hormones, and causes muscles to contract. And almost every nerve in the body is stimulated.

There are other ways to challenge yourself to keep moving. Walk to a colleague’s desk to ask a question instead of shooting off an email, use a bathroom that is further away, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and give walking meetings a try.

The health statistics stated above may singlehandedly be all the motivation needed to adopt more of a movement-based lifestyle while at work, but if you are an employer who likes work statistics, here is one more that might urge you to consider the environment that you create for your employees.

“When employees feel their employer cares about their well-being, they’re 38% more engaged at work. Providing flexible workstations—whether they are individual desks, group pods, collaborative tables, yoga balls, treadmills, bikes, or sit-stand desks—is one clear way organizations can demonstrate that they support their employee’s well-being,” Dr. Laura Hamill of Limeade says.

Now, let’s get up and get moving!