Skip to Main Content

Research Roundup: How does sitting for hours affect your heart?

Dr. James Churilla standing at his computer. Provided by Dr. Churilla
If you have read any of the research suggesting a strong link between sedentary lifestyles and chronic disease, you may have been motivated to increase your exercise and physical activity. Of course, becoming more physically active is always a good choice. Yet, if you sit for long periods of time all day, do not expect your evening exercise to counter the negative effects of all that inactivity. In fact, research is now suggesting that excessive sedentary time (e.g., sitting), may be associated with significantly greater odds of developing heart failure.

According to recent research completed by James R. Churilla, Ph.D. and a number of collaborators, 4.5 hours of sedentary time was a significant predictor of heart failure, a condition that causes the heart to pump less efficiently than needed to keep you healthy.

“Previous research has shown that for every three to four hours of sitting, there is an exponential increase in a person’s risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which is a minimum of three cardiovascular risk factors at one time,” Churilla said. “And this is not diminished by other exercise that the person does.”

Churilla is a physical activity epidemiologist in UNF’s Brooks College of Health. He also serves as the graduate program director for the Master of Science in Health in Exercise Science and Chronic Disease. His research examines physical activity and inactivity and chronic disease, specifically metabolic syndrome, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol and heart failure.

This study focused on overall heart failure and the two sub-types, systolic and diastolic. Although much is known about systolic heart failure, diastolic heart failure is less understood. “Aside from the usual culprit of cardiovascular disease, the primary causes of this type of heart failure are not well known,” Churilla said. “We suspected one of the reasons is sedentary behavior, the lack of physical movement, so we are hoping our findings strengthen the existing literature.” While heart failure is not a complete shutdown of the heart, it is often a progressive condition that can worsen over time and may require medication. Heart failure was estimated in 2017 to affect 6.5 million people. By 2030, that number is projected to reach 8.5 million.

Churilla conducted the research using data available from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, known as MESA, available to him as a cardiovascular epidemiology fellow of the American Heart Association. Looking at a person’s self-described sedentary time, Churilla and fellow researchers were able to find a significant association between sedentary time and heart failure, which clinicians at MESA previously diagnosed in the patients studied.

So, what is the solution for those working behind a desk all day? To lessen the serious effects of hours of sitting, Churilla suggests exercise breaks, or “exercise snacks, ”as he calls them. “If you sit for an hour or 90 minutes and then you stand for five minutes or take a five-minute walk around your workspace, that would not be considered consecutive sitting time,” he said. “So if you just stand for five minutes every hour or take a five minute walk, and you maintain your diet and regular exercise, you can keep your health relatively stable.”

In his own office, Churilla uses a standing desk that he can raise up every hour to stretch his legs for at least five minutes at a time. This simple movement has been shown to activate enzymes in our bodies that increase metabolism and help burn fat. He said a great deal of research is now being done on the exact mix of standing and walking that will improve your biomarkers, such as blood pressure and cholesterol. Until those results are in, however, Churilla suggests a simple solution: sit less and move often.