Most people are well aware of the strong health benefits that daily exercise has. But there’s a new phenomenon now emerging in the health world, a phenomenon scientists are calling “sedentary fitness”.
In short, this refers to a person who does his or her utmost to get a solid one hour of exercise per day but spends the majority of their waking hours sitting down. This person could climb hills for two hours per day, could hit the gym with a 45 minute, hardcore, sweat drenching, heart pumping workout every day without fail. Yet for the rest of the time they are curled up in a chair, constantly hunched over a computer or an office desk…
…and according to new scientific research, sitting for excessive periods of time can damage your health badly. It’s not just back pain; sitting for too long can compress your digestive system, increase your risk of cardiovascular failure and much more. These effects can happen independently of how much you exercise – sitting is a risk factor all by itself…
…and importantly for us, several of the diseases which prolonged sitting can contribute to have a tight connection to acne-covered skin.
Why sitting can damage your health
First of all, you simply have to consider the nature of the human species. Before we left the wild forever and constructed the civilisation we live in today, we lived in hunter gatherer tribes and spent the vast majority of our time gathering food, sleeping, defending the tribe against rivals, or enjoying ourselves in whatever limited ways we could (without books or TVs, in other words).
For plant foods the women would gather berries, root tubers, and vegetables. For meat, the men would spend all day strategically plotting the best way to hunt large animals such as the ancestors of modern cows, or the ancient megafauna that roamed Europe and America until 10,000 years ago such as megatherium (a type of giant sloth which we hunted to extinction), woolly rhinoceroses and woolly mammoths. For entertainment we probably just engaged in mock fights or competed in other primitive sports, i.e., who can run and jump over an extremely fast-flowing raging river without getting washed away.
In no part of that lifestyle, with the possible exception of storytelling from the wise old tribe leader or cooking, did ancient humans spend all day hunched over a computer. At no point did we complain of back pain due to constantly bending over an office report that was due in. For one thing, we simply didn’t have the chance. Think about it: there were no benches positioned around the countryside ready to sit on. All that was available was the grassy earth and rocks.
The point is that for thousands of years, if not millions of years if you consider Homo ergaster, Homo habilis, Neanderthal man and all of them, humanity did not spend much time sitting down at all…
…and hence, our bodies are likely not adapted to living that way. They’re likely not adapted to sitting for five hours day, let alone the ten, twelve, or even fifteen hours common in the USA in 2016. Normal people as varied as accountants, IT technicians, teachers, police chiefs, and politicians are feeling the pain. Add in the car journey, the fact that many of these workers are too exhausted to have fun in any other way than watching TV, and the virus of prolonged sitting spreads further and further.
Instinctively, it makes sense – maybe you’ve noticed you feel much healthier when you stand up more. With common sense it all fits, hence the theories above. Now a raging torrent of studies is revealing the dangers too. First we have a large study on cardiovascular disease in women, which used data from the huge Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. In total, 71018 women aged between 50 and 79 were assessed, with their rates of heart disease and sedentary time both being considered…
…and the results showed that “prolonged sitting time was associated with increased CVD risk, independent of leisure-time physical activity”. Women who sat for more than 10 hours per day had a dramatically higher risk of heart disease than women who sat for just 5.
Next we have a very well documented connection to type 2 diabetes. This study found that volunteers who sat for the longest periods of time daily had twice as big a risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This review of 18 studies with a total of 794557 participants found that sitting for 9 hours per day increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 90%. Most interestingly, sitting was a danger regardless of daily exercise: “prolonged sedentary time was independently associates with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity”.
Many studies also confirm a health risk that you would logically expect – compressed blood flow. One study made a group of healthy girls aged between 7 and 10 sit down for 3 hours, uninterrupted. Previously, their arteries functioned just fine, but sitting caused their arterial dilation to fall by 33%. To put that in perspective, a 1% decline in arterial function was once shown to increase the risk of heart disease by 13%. Once the girls resumed their normal, active lifestyle, their artery function became healthy again.
From this we can link prolonged sitting to a variety of circulatory diseases including stroke, varicose veins, blood clots, and more heart disease.
Finally, we have the studies that directly analysed the risk of death itself. One study concluded that lowering the time spent watching TV to below 2 hours every day increased overall life expectancy by 1.4 years. At the same time, slashing the overall hours spent sitting to below 3 hours increased life expectancy by 2 years.
There’s now over 10,000 studies on the perils of prolonged sitting, and the mountain of evidence continues to grow. It’s clear that uninterrupted sitting is a leading cause of poor health, with no escape even if you exercise like a madman each day.
The next question is whether the threat can extend to your acne too, and the answer may be yes…
How prolonged sitting may worsen acne
The first clue lies in a study conducted on 505 men and women (46% female, 54% male), which sought to analyse the relationship between self-reported daily sitting time and biomarkers of chronic inflammation. To ensure that the results weren’t simply due to lack of exercise rather than the sitting itself, all results were adjusted to make them independent of daily physical activity.
The results were as follows: women who sat for longer hours each day had substantially higher levels of c-reactive protein and interleukin 6, as well as fasting insulin. Among men, prolonged sitting down had no significant effect.
This study, however, found that sitting for over six hours per day was associated with elevated levels of interleukin 6 (one of the main pro-inflammatory chemicals behind acne) in both men and women. Finally, this study found that overall sitting time was positively correlated with c-reactive protein, the main blood biomarker scientists use to assess inflammation levels. Again, the results applied to both men and women.
Chronic inflammation is not a term you’ll ever hear on the 6 o’clock news nor one you’ll read in a cardiovascular health leaflet. Yet it’s a major cause of many common diseases and is the joint biggest cause of acne. Inflammation is dramatically more important than bacteria or hygiene.
If sitting down for too many hours each day can lead to chronic inflammation, then it’s highly likely it can cause acne as well.
The first study did find that the connection only existed in women and not men, but our second piece of evidence is more solid – sitting down is strongly linked to diabetes.
The study above confirmed that, and the significance for acne is that diabetes is the end of the road result of high blood sugar, impaired insulin sensitivity and elevated insulin levels. Those conditions all trigger acne by causing oily skin.
Separate studies have confirmed the link; the first inflammation study above also observed elevated insulin levels with longer hours spent sitting.
As we discussed, the study on diabetes confirmed that this phenomenon is not related to exercise. Apparently the answer lies in our cellular functioning. One piece of research stated that within 90 seconds of standing up, muscular and cellular signals that control insulin, blood sugar and weight loss all go into overdrive.
We don’t understand the science fully yet, but from a common sense perspective, our body expects us to be moving, expending energy and putting the body under greater stress when we’re standing up. An improved ability of insulin to shuttle blood glucose into energy stores might be the body’s natural way of preparing. It makes sense that sitting down for long times could impact cellular signals such as insulin sensitivity, even if it wasn’t designed to backfire like it’s doing today.
We already know that the fat-burning enzyme lipase activates very shortly after standing up. That’s one reason why obesity is so strongly linked to sitting. Hence, it’s likely that other molecular switches start flipping the moment you stand up, switches which possibly relate to insulin and blood sugar control.
Thorough an indirect mechanism then, sitting down for 5 or 10 hours per day could increase oily skin and clogged pores via disrupting your hormones.
Next is a theory which hasn’t been confirmed in any studies yet – that prolonged sitting can severely weaken your digestion.
The argument is that the basic compression of your stomach and intestines messes up the breaking down of food, disrupting the release of digestive agents such as hydrochloric acid. Compressing the food inside your stomach could also reduce the surface area that digestive enzymes can act on.
My theory – standing can slash stress hormones
Any one of the three theories outlined above is perfectly possible. The nutrient absorption theory is very basic, but it does make sense that digestion could slow down. Inflammation is not confirmed, and there’s no obvious mechanism where your immune system would become hyperactive just from sitting.
Insulin resistance makes a lot more sense, as the responsiveness of energy stores may be impaired while sitting down. But one factor that I can personally attest to is the massive mental benefits of standing up.
After I discovered all the information outlined above, particularly the aspects related to digestion and circulation, I started making an effort to do nearly all my work standing up. This very article was written while standing up.
What I’ve noticed is that compared to hours of endless sitting while writing an article, my brain feels a thousand times sharper. I have far more mental energy, I’m more level-headed, and my thought processes are generally as sharp as an industrial laser.
You’d think that standing up constantly would be a consistent drain on your energy, but I’ve found the opposite – I feel energetic and focussed after uninterrupted standing. Meanwhile, after sitting for about two hours straight I feel sluggish and my productivity declines. I noticed a big impact on physical energy, but the mental difference is more pronounced.
Personally, my hunch is that standing up could significantly increase neurotransmitters responsible for happiness and well-being such as serotonin. In turn, that should lead to a dramatic fall in levels of the stress cortisol hormone.
We have further evidence in the classic power pose study on hormones in humans. We covered in this article back in July how the simple act of changing your posture can slash cortisol by 25% in humans and increase testosterone by 20%. Changing from a defensive, low power position with shoulders slouched and legs folded inwards led to dramatic changes in hormone levels. Those who stood up to their full height, with hands on their hips and chest thrust outwards in a strong “power pose”, had the lowest stress.
It seems unbelievable that something so basic could have such amazing benefits, but the phenomenon is real. It’s all related to ancient instincts from the animal kingdom. You can read the article here.
It’s highly likely that the alteration in hormone levels shown in the study will extend to when you change from sitting down to standing up. In fact, standing up is a far bigger change in your position compared to unfolding your legs or no longer slouching – so I would expect the fall in stress hormones to be even greater.
Other factors are likely in play too, particularly enhanced circulation as this could increase cerebral blood flow and enhance the birth of new neurons. Like with diabetes, it’s possible that when standing up your body automatically activates a hyper-focussed, low stress, sharp as a dagger mode in your brain where you have a dramatically enhanced ability to carry out whatever functions you would need to while active (looking for food, fending off predators, etc).
Studies have begun to confirm the mental link as well. This one analysed 3000 government workers in Australia, compared their daily sitting time to markers of psychological distress, and concluded that the workers who sat for six hours compared to three hours were at far greater risk of mental problems. Again this effect occurred independently of exercise outside of work.
Then we have another study, this time on nearly 9000 women aged 50 to 55, which found that women who sat for 7 hours per day or more had a 47% greater risk of depression. That’s highly relevant for acne because depression and anxiety will pretty much automatically lead to elevated levels of stress hormones.
My belief is that if you are chronically stressed out, and that stress is a major cause of your acne, reducing your hours spent sitting to below three hours per day could be an excellent strategy.
How to execute the strategy
First you have to understand that sitting is not inherently deadly; the health problems come from prolonged sitting.
Judging from all the studies and evidence available so far, it’s smart to reduce your overall sitting time to three hours per day, and it’s especially smart to eliminate uninterrupted sitting. If you must sit for two hours, you should at least stand up for five minutes every hour, in order to restore basic blood flow.
One tool that’s popular with many self-employed people working from home is a standing desk, a desk adjusted to a height where they can type on a laptop without bending their neck or back uncomfortably. If you have a standing desk at hand, then excellent – but if you don’t that’s no problem. Simply use the furniture you already own. For instance, you probably have a chest of drawers with the proper height, possibly covered with piles of books or papers you could remove. If you have a camp bed that extends up to stomach height, you can crank up the laptop to the right height by stacking pillows or cushions underneath it (I’ve used this trick in the past).
The next question is one you’ll think of after a few hours of following the strategy: how can you minimise any discomfort and strain in your legs? You might notice that even if you walk 10 miles every day whether rain or shine, your legs still ache from prolonged standing. Even if your quadriceps and calves are as thick as tree trunks they could feel the strain, because prolonged standing uses a different set of smaller muscles, ligaments and supporting structures compared to climbing uphill, for example.
Like with any exercise, the secret is repetition. Standing up for hours each day may be uncomfortable at first, but eventually, the supporting structures in your legs will strengthen just like with the larger muscles. Standing up will become second nature to you and as easy as breathing.
If you think about it, why would it be comfortable at first? If you’ve spent years or even decades spending most of your day sitting down, your legs will be in serious need of training. How well your body adapts will depend on your age and health, but it only took three or four days for standing up constantly to become second nature for me.
If you slip on the habit, then your legs will atrophy and weaken again. However, the longer you continue standing, the stronger you will become and the less you will feel the urge to stop anyway.
Given how strongly sitting down for hour after hour with no interruptions can damage your overall health, I would not be surprised to hear that it winds up affecting your acne in some way.
We have tentative evidence that prolonged sitting may accelerate pimple formation by increasing inflammation levels. Sitting may cause oily skin and clogged pores by sending insulin through the roof. Finally, standing for a larger portion of your day may significantly slash your stress levels, and that is the strongest connection to acne in my reckoning.
This all seems highly unlikely; simply sitting is a highly improbable factor for destroying your skin. But acne is born inside the body, not the outside, and the mechanisms all fit. A wide variety of lifestyle choices can feed into acne in unexpected ways. As we mentioned, even improving your posture can lower cortisol levels by 25% and thus affect acne.
Even if prolonged sitting doesn’t affect your acne at all, I recommend you eliminate it from your life anyway due to the tremendous health benefits. I can attest to the great feeling you get throughout your entire body.
Nowadays I avoid sitting down for two hours uninterrupted at all costs. Yes, sitting down is relaxing, but once your legs strengthen up, the overall feeling of buzzing health you get in your body from standing constantly beats it hands down.
I strongly urge you to try it. You can only understand how great it feels to vastly reduce sitting from first-hand experience. You never know what might happen. Suffering from back pain, or an aching neck? There’s a chance that standing for many more hours each day will remove those conditions and leave you more flexible than ever before.
Thanks for reading!