By Rob Verkerk PhD, founder, executive and scientific director

HEALTH WARNING: Please read this article from a non-seated position.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that what we’re doing with our backsides — namely sitting on them for extended periods of time — is killing us slowly. Being sedentary and moving too little is one thing, but the act of being seated in the way we’ve become accustomed in Western societies in particular is problematic for our bodies.

Have you got sitting disease?

Some experts are referring to the ‘sitting disease’ as the ‘new smoking’. And don’t think just because you engage in regular exercise that you’re immune from the dangers of sitting. An Australian study published in JAMA Internal Medicine involving nearly a quarter of a million adults showed that sitting more than 6 hours a day increased all-cause mortality, irrespective of physical activity. It seems that even if we exercise 30 minutes a day, as recommended by most governments, it’s down to what we do in the remaining 6500 or so waking hours of the week that really makes the difference.

That’s one reason why I’m writing this standing up – albeit on a somewhat makeshift stand.

Evolution goes pear-shaped

We have to take stock. Not only has occupational physical activity declined dramatically over the last century, more and more of our non-work time involves sitting. All of this sitting contributes to us dying earlier from chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer.

Apart from occupations that involve sitting for long periods of time, other culprits of modern living include television viewing, recreational screen time, sitting during leisure time, and sitting in a car, train or plane.

There is an emerging scientific view that our susceptibility to chronic diseases, all of which are correlated to sedentary behaviours, is a direct result of contemporary mismanagement of our mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles in our cells. Mitochondria, from an evolutionary standpoint, almost certainly originated from bacteria. Our patterns of behaviour that culminated in the co-evolution of mitochondria within human tissues, especially skeletal muscle, were ones that served to give us a greater chance of reproductive and survival success. That very system that helped the global establishment of our species during prehistoric times now turns from saviour to tormentor. Central to this predicament is our tendency — in very recent times, evolutionarily speaking — to spend far too much time sitting.

Vicious circles

There’s also evidence that non-specific fatigue, sometimes referred to by doctors and other heath professionals as ‘tired all the time’ syndrome or TATT, as well as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), can be related to low mitochondrial reserve or function. Human cells contain somewhere between 2 and 2,500 mitochondria and particular patterns of eating and activity can raise both the number of mitochondria and their volume, especially in skeletal muscle cells.

Stand up – and start counting your mitochondria

Following are some simple things that can be done to enhance both mitochondrial density and volume. They will go some way to help re-instate the intended function of your energy-producing factories, your mitochondria:

  1. Don’t sit for more than 5 hours a day, and don’t sit for longer periods than one hour, without standing, walking or moving from a non-seated position for at least 5 minutes. Regularly counteracting gravity, be it through going to make a cuppa for your colleagues or friends, bouncing on a rebounder, running up some stairs, or doing some press-ups, sit-ups or other bodyweight exercises, should be built into your daily routine. This is particularly important if your job is sedentary. Set a timer to remind you it’s time to stand, walk and move!
  2. Incorporate some high intensity interval training (HIIT) into your week’s activity, ideally around 3 times a week. How hard you push yourself during your intense phase that might last between 30 seconds and 2 minutes, is going to depend on your level of fitness and underlying health. If you’re unsure what’s right for you, consult a personal trainer. Try your HIIT sessions in a fasted state, ideally after an overnight fast that’s run for over 12 hours (yes, that might means doing your HIIT before breakfast, or even skipping breakfast). It’s a great way of upping your natural production of growth hormone and improving your insulin sensitivity. Inside a 30 minute window of completing your session, consume around 20 g of protein to replenish your exhausted muscles that will be ready to recover and grow after their supercompensation trigger . It’s often easiest to take this as a shake, preferably as a high quality, dairy-free vegetarian protein based on pea protein isolate.
  3. Have you tried intermittent fasting? If you haven’t, now’s maybe the time – knowing it’s what your mitochondria love! That could mean not eating more frequently than every 5 hours, giving up snacks between meals, eating just two meals rather than three meals a day – or doing the 5:2 fast diet, where two days a week you drastically restrict your food intake to around 500-600 kcal a day.
  4. Include some longer bouts of endurance training into your weekly activity. That can be anything from longer walks, cycle rides, swimming, kayaking – take your pick. These activities should ideally be 2 hours or more as during the first 90 minutes or so you’ll just be burning stored carbohydrate in the form of glycogen in your muscles and liver. After this you start burning fat – your mitochondria’s favourite and cleanest endurance fuel. Your fat fuel can come both from your own body fat, and fats you consume in your diet. These should all be healthy fats like hydroxytyrosol-rich, cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil, MCTs from coconut oil and Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils or algal sources. Take it easy on Omega-6 rich polyunsaturated acids that are the predominant fats in most cheaper vegetable oils, over-consumption of which prevent our anti-inflammatory responses from working properly.
  5. It’s also important to ensure that all the cofactors your mitochondria need for making energy via the citric acid cycle and the respiratory chain (electron transport), are included in your diet and/or supplements. This includes B-vitamins (especially niacin, B6, panthothenic acid, folate and B12), vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, calcium, iodine and selenium, as well as L-carnitine, coenzyme Q10 and alpha lipoic acid. Recent evidence suggests that PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone) can actually trigger mitochondrial biogenesis. Fermented soybeans (natto) and parsley are two of the richest food sources of PQQ, which is now also available in some supplements.

Watch the TED-Ed video “Why sitting is bad for you” by Murat Dalkilinç – preferably while not sitting!

Comments

  1. It makes sense, we are ‘designed’ to be active and move. I wonder if you have heard of Stu Mittleman? A pro marathon runner who advocates that its possible to train the body to burn fat as a fuel much quicker than the conventionally accepted idea of 90 minutes. His book explains this in more detail, Slow Burn.

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