Too much sitting leads to health issues and an earlier death

Too much sitting leads to health issues and an earlier death

Wed, Aug 2, 2017
Too much sitting leads to health issues and an earlier death

Professor Oka’s lab. Researchers and students working on standing desks.

Accordingly to the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2017, Waseda University is ranked 1st and 19th respectively at the national and world levels for Sports-related Subjects. The model unit that contributed to such high standings is none other than Waseda’s Health and Sport Sciences Unit.

Professor Koichiro Oka from the Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University.

Interested in the kinds of research being done at the Health and Sport Sciences Unit, Waseda Weekly, the online magazine for Waseda students, interviewed Professor Koichiro Oka from the Faculty of Sport Sciences to learn about his research on health risks involved in sitting too much. In his long-term research, Professor Oka is looking into surveying and monitoring 10,000 alumni who will participate in the Waseda’s Health Study (WHS) conducted over a period of 20 years.

Q1: What kinds of risk are being involved in sitting too much?

When we are sitting, we are neither moving our thigh muscles nor calf muscles, which play a crucial role in carrying blood back to the heart. And when we sit over a prolonged period of time, it increases the risks of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and an earlier death. In addition, it also leads to the decline of mental health and cognitive functioning.

Q2: Do you have any specific data that you could share?

For example, if a person sits continuously in front of a television for an hour in a day, his or her average life-span will be shortened by 22 minutes. Additionally, comparing to people who sit less than 4 hours a day, those who sit 4 to 8 hours a day are 11% more likely to die early. Similarly, the risk of death increases to 22% and 33% for those who sit 8- 11 hours, and 11 hours or more respectively even if they meet the recommended hours of exercise stated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

In other words, sitting for a prolonged period of time will put the exercises you have done to waste. We have a term for these people and we call them “active couch potato.” For your information, the number of hours Japanese grownups sit a day stands at 7 hours, the longest among 19 other countries surveyed.

Q3: Why are people sitting so much more these days?

It is basically because times have changed. In the past, we had to deliberately move ourselves close to the television in order to switch channels. However, nowadays, we use a remote control to do the job instead. We used to do the cleaning and washing with our hands, but these days, we use machines like vacuum cleaners and washing machines to make our work easier. Additionally, thanks to the digital age we are currently in, there are so many situations or circumstances where we could complete our tasks without having to actually move our legs. All these changes resulted in us moving and exercising lesser, the reason why people are sitting more these days.

Changes to consciousness and work environment start from within Professor Oka’s lab.

Q4: Professor Oka, would you recommend that we work and study while standing?

My research aim is to reduce or even eliminate the number of people who are doing harm to their body but are unware of the risks their actions possess. I hope to induce a paradigm shift in the way we would study and work. Instead of sitting down while studying or working, I hope standing while studying or working will become the norm instead.

Take a few minutes to think about it, and you will realize that there are so many things we can do at work and at school without sitting down. In fact, many organizations and schools overseas have already introduced standing desks and elevating work tables. In Japan, we are also seeing an increasing number of organizations and private schools doing the same. In my current research, I am working closely with an organization and its employees to develop a system that could aid people who face the problem of sitting too much.

Q5: What challenges are you currently facing?

The challenges lie in changing the consciousness and environment at present, and spreading them to the larger society. Many companies responded saying that the health risks of sitting for too long would only occur after retirement and hence they were not interested in making investment. Therefore, I have been gathering data on how continuous sitting could lead to work inefficiency and decreasing work motivation. These apply to learning efficiency and motivation for learning as well.

Q6: Could you tell us more about Waseda’s Health Study (WHS)?

Waseda’s Health Study is a long-term project launched in 2013 that works closely with Waseda University alumni to keep track and collect data on their physical activities and eating habits over an extended period of 20 years time.

There are 3,200 participants at present and we are looking to increase the number to 10,000. We hope that at the end of 20 years in 2032 when Waseda celebrates its 150 years anniversary, our research findings will be so influential that the first university that will come to mind in researchers when they think about health-related research is Waseda University, even if the University does not have a medical school.

Professor Koichiro Oka completed his PhD degree at the Graduate School of Human Sciences in 1999. Before becoming a professor at the School of Sport Sciences of Waseda University in 2006, he worked as a researcher at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and Department of Long-term Care Prevention of Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology.

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