How to Keep Your Desk Job From Killing You

Photograph by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds — AFP/Getty Images

Over the past few years we’ve heard all sorts of dire warnings about the effects of sitting. “Your Desk Job Makes You Fat, Sick, and Dead” is just one of the alarming headlines that have accompanied the news.

A report out Wednesday in the journal Lancet provides a somewhat predictable solution. It says the key to canceling out the dangers of sitting is to be active. What’s more helpful is the study’s formula that calculates just how much physical activity is needed to ward off the risks of sitting: it’s a ratio of one to eight. You must be active for one hour to make up for every eight hours staying put, which for most people equates to about 60 or 75 minutes per day. The activity doesn’t have to be rigorous—even brisk walking would suffice—and it can be completed in shorter increments.

The study, lead by Professor Ulf Ekelund for the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and the University of Cambridge, comes from an analysis of about 1 million people aged 45 and older in the United States, Western Europe, and Australia. The study says that being active can reduce or eliminate sitting’s hazards, like death, diabetes, and some cancers.

The study’s prescribed 60-75 minutes of activity is more than what’s recommended in most public health guidelines. Examining the joint effects of sitting and physical activity is important, the authors argue, because most people engage in both behaviors every day, “so the effects of both should be considered in public health guidelines.”

And there’s an urgency to adopting this new advice.

An accompanying study calculates that physical inactivity cost health care systems worldwide a combined $53.8 billion in 2013, $31.2 billion of which was paid for by the public sector. Plus, deaths related to physical inactivity contribute to $13.7 billion in productivity losses. Higher-income countries bear a larger proportion of the economic consequences while lower- and middle-income countries have a larger proportion of the disease burden.

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