PALO ALTO, Calif. As you might expect at a conference on the health dangers of sitting, most of the seats were empty.
It was well-attended, but the scientists and health experts who did gather Thursday at Stanford University were encouraged to get up from their chairs, stretch their legs, pace the room, even stand during discussions ranging from the risks of inactivity to technological solutions for reducing time on ones behind.
Certainly the irony of having everyone sit through a conference on the perils of sitting was not lost on us, said Anne Friedlander, a consulting professor of human biology at Stanford and an organizer of the two-day conference titled The Science of Sedentary Behavior.
Friedlander opened the event by telling participants that they could monitor their sit-time on a timer displayed on a big screen behind the lectern. Alternative seating, including exercise balls, also was available. A campus walking tour would end the day.
Its almost impossible to sit down for long periods when you know whats going on in your body while youre sitting, Friedlander said.
Although much of the research into the health risks is preliminary, several studies suggest that people who spend prolonged periods on their behind are more likely to be overweight, have heart disease or even die.
Inactivity, the studies also say, decreases circulation and the body starts shutting down on a metabolic level.
The goal of the conference was to discuss the existing science on the topic and what research is still needed.
Neville Owen, professor of health behavior at the University of Queensland in Australia, said much of the research into sedentary behavior also has focused on weight gain or loss. Another goal of the conference is to approach the subject more broadly, knowing that preliminary research shows that prolonged sitting effects more than just your waistline, he said.
We cant let ourselves get sucked in to one particular track, Owen said. Thats just not the whole story.
Participants were quick to note challenges to new research, including separating the many variables that can influence bad health from the sole act of sitting.
They wondered, for example, does a bus driver tend to have poorer health because he or she sits all day or is it because of the stress of the job? Is watching too much TV harmful because of the hours spent lounging on the couch or is it because commercials encourage you to eat more?
We know there are links between too much sitting and risks to health, said David Dunstan, an associate professor at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia. But we have yet to figure out the exact causes and to what effect.
Theres also no consensus on how much sitting is too much, though there is evidence suggesting that interrupting periods of prolonged sitting with frequent breaks is beneficial.