Sitting All Day is Bad For You, So What’s a Tired Runner To Do?

by Jason Fitzgerald

Every few months there’s a new fitness or health topic that ripples through the tubes of the internet.

Years ago it was the Paleo Diet (which is legit).

Then we all heard about Vitamin D and it’s apparent long list of benefits (which is probably legit – needs more study).

Now it seems that one of the biggest health concerns is sitting. Inactivity. Sedentary behavior.

Don't Sit All Day!

At first glance, I dismissed the concern. Any runner who’s running 4 or more times a week doesn’t need to worry about some extra sitting. If you run a lot (or even just a few times a week), you’re getting enough exercise and don’t need to worry about all that time sitting at your laptop.

The Perils of Sitting

It turns out, it’s not that simple. Long periods of sedentary behavior are bad for you – regardless of whether or not you exercise. So if I run for 90 minutes in the morning and then sit on my ass the rest of the day, I’m still being unhealthy.

Think of it this way: sitting is like smoking. If you smoke but eat a super healthy diet or run frequently, you’re still a smoker. No amount of running can undo that. I don’t think sitting is as bad as smoking, but nobody should run and then lie on the couch watching House all day.

A few months ago this awesome infographic was floating around. It got me scared so I started researching the studies that were being published about excessive sitting. The results are startling. Sitting…

  • reduces the HDL or “good” cholesterol in your body
  • increases your risk of dying…period.
  • makes it more likely you’ll become diabetic
  • increases your risk of heart disease
  • increases your risk of some cancers
  • puts you at a greater risk for obesity

If you’re not thinking “holy shit” then I have no idea how to scare you.

Despite the fact that I run a lot and my wife calls me a core whore, I sit down for a majority of the day. I’m sitting down right now as I’m typing this.Poor Posture

So after reading all that, I started using a standing desk for part of the day and I felt more energized – mentally as well as physically. After my runs I didn’t get overly stiff by sitting down for long periods of time afterward (but of course, not after doing a proper warm-down routine).

As September rolled around, I started running more in preparation for the Philly Marathon next month (holy shit is it only a month away?!). My September volume topped out at 342 miles, my highest for the year, and I was tired a lot.

The time I spent at my standing desk decreased rapidly as soon as I was running 80+ miles a week. My legs just couldn’t handle it! I don’t think I’m alone – anybody working their ass off doesn’t want to spend hours standing after a long run or workout. So I sat down and loved every minute of it.

Run, Walk, Sit, Stand, Kneel?!

So what’s a tired runner to do? If sitting is bad for you, but running a lot makes you tired and want to sit down, do you suck it up and stand? I don’t think so. Staying on your feet for hours after a hard workout can put extra stress on your muscles and hamper the recovery process.

The key is to find a compromise between your training and what’s healthy for you in the long-term. And in doing so, the old adage of everything in moderation works great here. Standing all day doesn’t work. Neither does sitting.

In a perfect world, you’d use a combination of strategies to both enhance recovery, relax, and optimize your health throughout the day:

  • Use a standing desk for part of the day
  • Sit in a normal office chair
  • Sit on an exercise ball
  • Take frequent walk breaks
  • If you can, invest in one of those weird kneeling chairs
  • Use your lunch hour actively instead of just surfing the web at your desk or sitting at a restaurant

For more strategies on how to limit sedentary behavior, read my post on beating office tightness. When you’re constantly going from standing to sitting to walking to kneeling, your body won’t have a chance to get stiff. You’ll be using different muscles and constantly changing how your body is aligned. You won’t even have time for bad posture!

Muscles have memory, so the longer you spend in a slouched position at your desk with your legs crossed the worse it is for you. After awhile of sitting down, your muscles remember the position that you put them in. Your hip flexors get tighter. Your glute muscles stretch out and get weak. It’s bad news – so avoid prolonged sitting (or standing) as much as you can.

There’s one runner that comes to mind who seems to be doing a lot right in this area: Steve Speirs. I interviewed him earlier this year and follow him on Twitter. I’m amazed at how he is constantly going for walks and short double runs. Not only do I think this is good from a training perspective, but it’s the healthiest way to live your life from an activity perspective.

Steve Speirs

He’s moving around a lot – even if he spends a good amount of time sitting, it’s broken up into manageable chunks. I’ve never met Steve outside of Twitter, email, or dailymile but I get the distinct feeling he’s doesn’t sit still for long…

As runners, we need to be proud that what we like to do keeps us healthy. Whether you run for fitness, competition, general health, or just because you love the wind in your hair, your hobby has serious health benefits that are going to energize you and prolong your life.

But that doesn’t mean you get a free pass for the other 23 or so hours in the day. Be mindful of how you’re spending your day. Get up and walk around. Do things the hard way like take the stairs or park farther away from the front door in your parking lot. Go talk to your colleague instead of emailing her. Print to the other side of the office. Ride your bike to work.

You might just live a few more years.

Photo Credit, Photo Credit

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Tim

Very nice post as usual Jason. I was actually thinking about this today as my wife and I walked around Paris this morning. I’m on taper but my legs aren’t going as crazy because since I’ve lived in the city for 18 months now, I walk A LOT. At first I was nervous that it would kill my legs since I had upped my mileage. But, the fact of not having a car and needing to walk and carry the groceries and everything else is actually a refresher to the legs (in moderation). This morning I walked a mile just taking my son to school and back, and that doesn’t count the hour of walking I had to do later. So, just to reinforce your argument, I honestly think that the activity (walking, standing etc.) and the escape from suburbia have increased my running performance and capacity just because I’m moving around so much more.

Jason

Thanks Tim – I think a lot of low-level activity helps with recovery and general conditioning a lot. I actually do 3-4 short walks every day just to make sure I move around a lot. I just don’t log them.

Lisa

I’ve been trying to figure out how to get an adjustable desktop at work. One that you can raise to stand up for a bit and then lower it to sit back down. I haven’t figured out how to get the office manager to buy into it though. They’ll buy expensive chairs for the overweight people to sit on “comfortably” but not stuff that will help you be healthier. :( I try to walk a little bit on my break or lunch every day though, just 10 or 20 minutes. Even with that, the running, and the bike commuting…I still don’t think that’s enough to counteract the rest of the time I’m sitting.

Heather

Lisa, I’ve made my own “adjustable desktop”. I got a shelf that’s about 11″ high (http://www.target.com/p/ClosetMaid-24-Horizontal-Organizer-Espresso/-/A-12918048), and a plastic file storage box that’s about the same height. I put both of these on top of my desk, put my keyboard and mouse on the shelf, my monitor on the box, and voila – a standing desk. It sounds cumbersome, but really it only takes a minute to switch between sitting and standing and it cost about $13 (paid for myself). I try to rotate between standing, sitting on a chair, and sitting on an exercise ball as Jason mentioned.

Heather

Lisa, I made an adjustable desktop at work for $15. I got a Closet Maid shoe shelf that’s about 11″ high and 24″ long, and a plastic file box of a similar height. I put the box and shelf on my desk, put keyboard and mouse on the shelf and monitor on the box, and voila – a standing work station. It sounds cumbersome, but it really only takes a minute to set it up. I try to switch between standing, sitting on a ball, and sitting on a chair. I get funny looks from co-workers, but since I bike commute year-round I’m used to their funny looks :)

Jason

That is awesome!!

Lisa

Thanks for the suggestion Heather. I get those same looks with my bike commute. :)

Tammy

Thanks Jason.. this is a great post! A nice reminder that proper running and training does not end the moment the run/session is over. Its a lifestyle..commitment perfect timing. And yes, holy crap- Philly is only a month away.. we will be watching and cheering you on in our house!

Kris

Bad news for a guy who works in front of a computer! I had heard this news a few months back and was most surprised about the part where it didn’t matter how much exercise you got, the sitting would still do its damage. Crazy!

The point you made in your smoking analogy is a good one, but not very comforting…

Jason

No, not comforting at all. But exercising is STILL very good for you. Plus, the variety of the suggestions above can help a lot.

Daniel

I have heard about this but believe tha by taking frequent breaks to walk around (like once every hour) even if short (say just to the bathroom) can really help. My job requires alot of focus so I try to get up from my desk and move around a little bit every hour or so anyways to give my mind a rest. Also helps give my body a little relief as well I guess!

John

Just curious if you think you can walk ‘too much’? I lift 3 days a week (just started) and also run 3 days per week (approx 10 miles per week but increasing). I do both in the morning and was planning on walking 2 – 3 miles on the treadmill each night. I started all of this to lose weight (down about 40 pounds so far, another 40 to go). I eat Paleo. Unfortunately work has me sitting most of the day and I tend to veg out with the family and watch tv or read at night. Do you think adding the walking in at night is too much? As of right now I’m incredibly sore from lifting (though the running probably added to it).

Jason

Hey John, thanks for the question and awesome job with your workouts and losing that weight! That’s great. So ultimately, yes, I do think you can walk too much. 2-3 miles on a treadmill might be a lot (and pretty boring!). I think a better strategy is to implement short breaks into your day so you don’t spend an excessive amount of time sitting. You can go for a 5-10min walk, stand at your desk for 20-30 minutes, etc. The key is variety. Good luck!

Greg Strosaker

I’m all for the exercise ball idea, have long intended to try that out. Now you have given me the motivation to do so.

Jason

I’ve used one. Gets tiring (both physically and just annoying) after 30-45 minutes, but better for you than a chair in moderation. I want a treadmill desk!

ed

I heard a study a while back about this. I set a calendar reminder in outlook which goes off every hour to tell me to get off my arse and walk, whether that be up the stairs or around the yard. I surely don’t each popup, but it does get me up more than I would otherwise.

Alex

Out of curiosity, how “paleo” is your daily eating?

Jason

Hey Alex – it depends on my training really. The more I’m running and the higher the intensity, the less paleo my diet is. Right now my weekly volume has been anywhere from 82-88 in the last month, and I’m doing longer workouts, so I’m not eating very paleo. But when I’m down to ~60 miles with easier workouts I definitely eat more paleo. It’s a good diet to lose weight (plus no calorie counting) if that’s your goal, but not good for fueling a distance runner when they’re working hard. Thanks for the question Alex! And btw, I started reading your site – who doesn’t love coffee – and congrats on lining up for a 50 miler. Not sure I could make it through 35 miles, job well done!

Alex

I don’t have any desire to lose weight myself, given that I’m 5’10 and 140 lbs. I was just curious if you could sustain your workload on a virtually starchless eating pattern, as that didn’t sound likely. And thanks for reading.

Jason

Ah, good to know. Yeah I think you’re at a good weight (we have similar body types). The harder you’re working, the more you need those carbs or else you won’t recover well or run well.

Alex

Agreed. I tinkered with some VLC diets in my more physique obsessed days, and always felt awful. Of course, my training suffered as well. It’s worth noting, however, that paleo community seems to be coming around on starch/carbs. Kurt Harris and Stephen Guyenet (both avoid the word “paleo”) both note that tubers were inarguably important foods in human evolution, and have healthfully supported civilizations since. Even the more caveman fantasists like Wolf and Sisson seem to have left the “carbs are bad” bandwagon. The rub is that, for any non-diabetics, starch restriction is probably damaging in the long term. For athletes, it would be worse, and quicker.

Wes

corewhore… LOL!! I like your wife :-) Totally dig this article, and point well taken. I need to move around more. As an IT guy, I spend much time sitting on my buns. I’ve got glutes of steel :-)

Rob

Great post. I work from home, using a laptop all day. So i have some options. I have a stand for my laptop and i work part of the day with it on the kitchen counter. when actually sitting i try and get up and move around every 20 minutes and work out the kinks, especially the hip flexors

Bodyworks Family Sports Centers

One way to boost metabolism is to be active not only during exercise but all day. Sitting hinders this. Sitting also causes edema, that’s why even during long flights, it is very much recommended to walk around and stretch your leg. This also applies to those working 8hrs a day in the office. Moving is important as it is good for the circulation of the blood in the body.

Jason

Interesting Alex, thanks for sharing. “Fantasist” is such a great word! I find it fascinating that even Sisson puts a pinch of sugar in his morning coffee… it’s certainly not as bad as some may have you think. As long as you’re not gouging on crappy processed carbs all the time you’ll be fine.

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