Chances are good you have started 2018 much the same way you ended December – by spending hours and hours on your backside. Working, studying, driving, web surfing and binge-watching.
“Even if we exercise regularly, most of us sit or recline for an average of 11 hours a day,” said Wuyou (Yoah) Sui, a PhD student in the Department of Kinesiology. “Our bodies just aren’t designed to function well with such low levels of activity – we all have to move more often than we do, or endure a variety of chronic health issues.”
Sedentary people are at higher risk of heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer, several recent studies show.
But mere good intentions aren’t enough, as anyone can attest who has dieted for a well-meaning week or whose workout clothes are buried somewhere with their gym memberships.
Now, a new study co-authored by Sui and Kinesiology professor Harry Prapavessis, Director of the Exercise and Health Psychology Lab, may have some answers to easing chronic sedentary behaviour.
They drew a cohort of student participants to test whether a Health Action Process Approach might help students take more, and longer, breaks from sitting. The approach, which helps motivated participants develop strategies to meet their goals, has been used successfully to help in smoking cessation and seatbelt compliance, but had not, until now, been tested to modify sedentary behaviour.
During six weeks of the study, Sui and Prapavessis helped students choose their best strategies to take more frequent breaks. For some, that included setting timers and phone reminders. Three weeks in, they also had a short check-in session.
Their paper, Standing Up for Student Health: An Application of the Health Action Process Approach for Reducing Student Sedentary Behavior – Randomised Control Pilot Trial, was published last month in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being.
In it, Sui and Prapavessis describe how, after six weeks, the students had turned these cues into habits. They took breaks, on average, once an hour in comparison to their previous 90-minute sitting sessions. Even two weeks later, they continued to shave time from their sitting durations. By contrast, a control group showed no improvement in its sitting habits.
“It’s human nature to stumble when trying to add new activities to a busy day, which is why diets and exercise resolutions sometimes fall flat,” Sui said. “This study shows we can combat ‘occupational sitting’ not by adding a new activity but by sliding a substitute regimen into the place of an existing one.”
For students or office desk jockeys, those changes could include standing during phone calls; making a few short trips to the water fountain instead of one lingering visit and replacing departmental email conversation with a walk-and-talk.
“We can build into our day some simple strategies to bring us out of our chairs and off our couches,” Prapavessis said. “It may or may not make us more productive – we suspect it does, but the jury is still out on that one – but we know the health impact of getting to our feet is a positive one.”
Many adults are physically inactive, meaning they are failing to meet current recommendations of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week. Persuading people to become more physically active and fit remains an important goal of researchers. But the field of figuring out how to modify sedentary behaviour has also been growing.
“Here, in Kinesiology, we have ‘activity models’ that show if you do this much (exercise), you will have this much benefit. Unfortunately, in Western society, we don’t do very much and so it makes sense also to study inactivity models,” Prapavessis said.
He noted physically fit people also sometimes fall into the misconception that exercising three times a week can make up for the negative effects of sitting most of the rest of the time.
“This a simple-but-elegant approach to getting people to move around more. Just being on your feet, you’re changing your anatomical position, you’re engaging in a weight-bearing activity your body needs,” Prapavessis said.
He said the relatively new health warning that “sitting is the new smoking” may set up a bit of a false dichotomy. “If you have a chance between this butt or a cigarette butt, you’ll still want to want to choose sitting. But you really need to do neither.”
Sui outlined details of his study during a recent Western Three-Minute Thesis competition for graduate students.