Avoid sitting for long hours. It increases your risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even some forms of cancer, says GEETA PADMANABHAN

Ok, folks. Here is the new fitness mantra. Chant. “My chair is my enemy”. Keep away from this foe and improve your chances of getting into those snug jeans. Are you the “let's sit and talk” type? No matter. You can do this in small, non-hurting ways.

Step 1: Stand up as you read this.

Step 2: Log in the day's sitting hours (is the writing pad hanging on the wall?). The first hour away from your home, you're on the two-wheeler seat or inside the car. Granted, you stand while you ride the elevator to your cabin, but after that how many hours is it “in your official seat”? Back home, you are surfing — the Net or TV channels — or reading. Your banking, ticket-booking, posting letters are all now “seated” online activities. Add up, clock the hours a day spent “sitting down”. Done?

Step 3: Ask: what's wrong with sitting?

First, recent studies in the U.S., Canada and Australia show that long hours resting your back on a chair/car-seat/sofa puts you at increased risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.

Dr. S. Sundar, Consultant Physiatrist, finds “Sitting the way we do for long keeps our hips and knees flexed, impacts blood circulation in the legs. Behind-knee muscles become tight leading to stiffness in the lower back.”

S. Devarajan MPT, MIAP, Consultant Physiotherapist and Rehab Manager says, “While we sit, spinal muscles keep us erect for about 15-20 minutes at a stretch, then our posture goes haywire! One group of muscles remains in a shortened position while others remain elongated. This poses strain on the spinal and limb muscles.”

Second, actively contracting muscles produce substances that help use and store the fats and sugars we consume. Doctors talk of lipoprotein lipase, a molecule that plays a crucial role in how the body processes fats. If you produce low levels of lipoprotein lipase, you end up with a variety of health problems, including heart disease. Experiments on animals show that leg muscles produce this molecule only when they are “actively being flexed (when the animal is standing up and ambling about)”. Sit for long, your muscles rest, metabolising of sugars and fats is lowered, distribution of body fat is altered and you find yourself fatter around the middle — changes that are “among the first steps on the road to diabetes.”

Second, even those who exercise regularly and are generally healthy, find their waists expanding when their chair hours rise to 10-15 hours a day. Vigorous exercise for an hour or so does not offset the ill effects of sitting the day away. Says Dr. Sundar, “Exercises broadly are classified as those burning up fuel (jogging, aerobics), strengthening (pumping weights) and stretching (yoga). The exercises you do may serve one aspect of fitness.” Devarajan believes jogging for an hour is a good cardio workout, but does not reverse/undo the stress of prolonged sitting.

On to Step 4. “Sitting for 10 hours without a break needs to be countered by proper stretches — five minutes an hour by international occupational and safety organisations,” says Dr. Sundar. A study of people who sit for many hours found that those who took frequent small breaks — standing up, stretching, walking — had smaller waists and better profiles for sugar/fat metabolism than those who sat for uninterrupted hours.

Sure you were “trained” to sit. Your teacher said, “Don't disturb the class, don't fidget! Sit down and listen!” You have projects that can meet deadlines only when you sit at the workstation from dawn to dusk and beyond. Isn't meditation sitting too? Right, but “Our system demands that we are in a dynamic state with constant change in posture to be pain free,” says Dr. Sundar. Adds Devarajan, “It's a good idea to have ‘time-outs' while at work. Brace shoulders, extend the neck backwards and bend backwards at the lower spine.”

So beware your chair. We've been taking breaks from rigorous activity. Time we took breaks from sitting for long.


* It's possible to reduce sitting time. Do “incidental” walking. Walk to buy small items, to ATM/banks, when you run errands. Climb steps to the office floor.

* Don't punch e-mails to colleagues down the cubicles and neighbours. Walk down to meet them.

* Hide the TV remote. Potter around the house during ad breaks.

* Start a balcony/roof garden. Tending to plants is good exercise.