New study connects sitting time with increased risk of heart disease

SFU professor looks at global rates of heart disease in connection to activity

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This photo is of an individual sitting at their computer. Their head is in their hands and they look stressed and tired.
Study says inactive people are up to 50% more likely to develop heart health concerns. PHOTO: Jonadan Cheun / The Peak

By: Chloë Arneson, News Writer

A new study published in the journal of JAMA Cardiology supports the notion that prolonged sitting is associated with increased risk of early death and heart conditions. The research found individuals who sit for more than eight hours a day have a 20% higher risk of cardiovascular disease. 

The Peak interviewed the co-lead of the study, Scott Lear, for more information about their findings. Lear is a health science professor at SFU and has been working on the study since 2003.

The study included over 100,000 people across 21 countries, tracking their heart health over an average of 11 years. It focused on following individuals from countries of varying economic levels.

Lear noted the study may play an important role in preventing early deaths and increasing life expectancy. “People who were active could minimize the effects of sitting,” he said. In the paper, they stated by meeting World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for physical activity, individuals who sit for prolonged periods can reduce their risk of heart-related issues. 

“Most people probably aren’t thinking about their activity levels,” Lear said. “A simple thing like setting your phone alarm every 30 minutes and getting up to walk around,” can make a big difference, according to Lear. Simple household chores scheduled throughout the day can reduce the impact of those working from home. 

Lear discussed how socioeconomic status affects daily routines and impacts overall health. He noted the majority of studies that have focused on the impacts of sitting take place in higher-income countries. “Most people are working jobs where they sit during the day and then they get their exercise activity during their leisure time,” Lear explained.

The connection between sitting and health concerns was especially significant in lower to middle-income countries, according to Lear. “What we’ve found in our previous research is that this recreational leisure time is almost non-existent,” he said. An analysis of a report released by the WHO suggests that lower-income countries have more opportunities for work and transit-related activity, but significantly less time for leisure. Due to longer average working hours, people in lower-income countries have less time, money, and energy to participate in physical activities outside of work or transit-related movement.

Lear wrote an article for the Heart and Stroke Foundation about “exercise snacking” that outlines the importance of incorporating small bites of movement into our daily routines. He describes simple exercises anyone can do from their living rooms with no equipment or experience, such as jumping jacks or walking up and down a set of stairs. 

In SFU’s news release, Lear also mentioned that clinicians should ensure their patients are incorporating these healthy habits in their lives. “It’s a low-cost intervention that can have enormous benefits,” Lear said.