Heart Disease and Diabetes Risk Linked to Sedentary Lifestyle

GW professor Loretta DiPietro says prolonged sitting is linked to increased health risks.

August 25, 2016


Milken Institute School of Public Health professor Loretta DiPietro.

By Kristen Mitchell

Sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time isn’t conducive to good health, according to George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health professor Loretta DiPietro. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers and is associated with more than 5 million deaths every year.

In an update on physical activity and its impact on health published by The Lancet this summer, Dr. DiPietro wrote a commentary about how people can counteract the health risks of prolonged sitting with moderate exercise throughout the day.

GW Today checked in with Dr. DiPietro to talk about what students, faculty and staff should keep in mind as the fall semester begins.

Q: What is it about sitting that is so bad for you?

A: When we sit for prolonged periods of time, we do not expend the fuel that we have stored in our cells. Over time, this leads to a substrate build-up (i.e., an over-feeding of the cell), which then leads to a series of consequences, namely the buildup of reactive oxygen species (highly reactive molecules) which then increases oxidative stress, impairs mitochondrial biogenesis and interferes with insulin action – this is the pathway to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Excess intracellular fuel accumulation can also lead to the build-up of fat tissue in other parts of the body, such as the deep abdominal (visceral) depot.

Q: What kind of health problems can stem from long periods of inactivity?

A: Excessive weight gain, insulin resistance, muscle atrophy, bone loss (similar to periods of extended space flight in astronauts). Over time, these conditions lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteopenia and frailty.

Q: What can people do to counteract some of these negative side effects of sitting?

A: Don't sit! Or, for every hour of sitting, get up and walk around for five minutes, preferably on the stairs. In addition, adherence to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week) is a necessary counter-measure.

Q: Do you have any advice for students, faculty and staff who might find themselves sitting behind a desk more often this fall?

A: Get or create a standing desk. The Milken Institute School of Public Health has many examples of such desks in offices, cubicles and in classrooms. Students can ask professors if they could stand during class. Standing during long faculty meetings or retreats is also an option for faculty and staff.