Day Two: Heart Matters -- To Sit or Not to Sit?

Finally, an issue in which Hamlet-like indecision may be a positive -- cardiac health and seemingly-contradictory studies on sitting down time.
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Finally, an issue in which Hamlet-like indecision may be a positive -- cardiac health and seemingly contradictory studies on sitting down time.

I have a colleague, let's call her Megan. Because, in fact, her name is Megan.

While writing Day One's "Tall, Dark, Handsome and Not Likely to Die of Heart Failure" blog, Megan emailed me that she was having trouble reconciling why death rates from all causes increased across higher levels of "sitting down" time no matter whether a person smokes or doesn't smoke, used to smoke, drinks, used to drink, doesn't drink, is active or inactive, or how horrendous his Body Mass Index (the measure of body fat based on height and weight) -- which, okay, was still moribund.

In the study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Megan was analyzing, people who did almost no sitting had no increase in mortality. By contrast, people who spent one-fourth of their time sitting had a 1 percent increase in mortality from cardiovascular disease; people who sat one-half of their time had an increase of 22 percent; three-quarters of their time 47 percent; and full-time sitters a whopping 54 percent increase in mortality. Conclusion? "Physicians should discourage sitting for extended periods."

So the 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five times per week you've been doing religiously isn't doing any good? Really? Seriously? You've got to be kidding? Just shoot me!

Thankfully, the gravity connection from the upright "tall study," had some interesting implications. Gravity impacts the cardiovascular systems of people lying down or sitting up differently. In the same way that a 5-foot-7-inches guy, built like fire hydrant, has a higher risk for heart disease than a streamlined tall guy, sitting can be seen as morphing into a less-efficient cardiovascular shape.

Harvard-trained cardiologist and veteran cardiac surgeon John McDermott, M.D., of Syracuse, N.Y. explained:

"Sitting and sedentary states correlate with lower cardiac outputs than exertional states, and reduced blood flow through the tissues and organs. It is conceivable that this reduced flow may allow greater accumulation of free radicals and other toxic by-products of metabolism in various organs as compared to the more vigorous blood flow during physical activity. This might explain in part the negative effects of sitting or sedentary states on various aspects of health."

If one sits for eight hours straight, toxins have already done their damage. What the body needs is frequent interruption from sitting so that the cardiovascular system can cleanse toxins from the blood.

Run up and down a flight of stairs, jump in place, use the farther-away office printer, skip, take a walk, play ping pong, shoot baskets, dance, retie your shoelaces. Your brain and your productivity at work benefit as well as your heart.

Stuck in a wheelchair? Fidget. Science published a study by Mayo Clinic researcher James Levine, M.D., that suggests fidgeting (while irritating to others) has physical rewards. Levine suggests:

"... We need to develop individual strategies to promote standing and ambulating time by 2.5 hours per day and also re-engineer our work, school and home environments to render active living the option of choice."

As Hamlet might have said, "... end the heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks That Flesh is heir to" -- if you're a sitter, stand up every 20 minutes or so. After you've "shuffled off this mortal coil" (not sure Shakespeare was referring to a desk chair here, but I claim poetic license) sit down again. Feel free to change your mind and jump back up to your feet -- "'Tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished."

February is American Heart Month. Please take a few minutes to visit the Yale Heart Study site and complete the heart attack survivors survey, or forward it to someone you know who has survived a heart attack.

Questions? Contact, visit, or phone me at: 203-785-4872.

Megan Parmenter, Yale Heart Study Research Associate and Angelo A. Alonzo, Ph.D., contributed to reporting this blog.

Disclosure: Suzanne O'Malley is a Senior Research Associate for the non-profit NIH-funded Yale Heart Study, a Faculty member of the Yale Writers' Conference & Associate/Director of Yale Summer Film Institute.

For more by Suzanne O'Malley, click here.

For more on personal health, click here.

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