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Sedentary lifestyles – the invisible pandemic of the 21st century

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What does it mean to sit?

The definition of a sedentary lifestyle has been the subject of lively debate among researchers for many years. A consensus has emerged that a sedentary lifestyle is any behaviour (other than sleep), such as sitting or bending, for which the energy expenditure is 1.5 MET (Metabolic Equivalent of Task) or less [3]. This rate roughly corresponds to the average energy expenditure during exercise of a given type (or at rest). It is assumed that one MET is equivalent to the oxygen consumption during one minute of being at rest (e.g., sitting) [4]. Of course, this is only an approximation as it is influenced by individual characteristics such as gender, age, body composition, training level, etc. Examples of sedentary behaviour include watching TV, using a computer, sitting at school, at work or when moving around.

Scientific literature clearly indicates that sedentary lifestyles increase overall mortality and the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and cancer (breast, colon, colorectal, endometrial and ovarian cancer) [5-7].

How long can I sit?

Establishing a quantitative threshold of time spent sitting per day that would be considered an additional health risk is a difficult task. Much depends on a number of factors including socioeconomic status, type of occupation, age, gender, frequency and type of physical activity undertaken. Thus, in some studies we observe distant population averages ranging from 2.5-3 hours per day in Portugal, Brazil or Colombia, to 7-8 hours in Saudi Arabia, Japan or the UK [8-10]. One study summarising numerous research findings concluded that the risk of overall mortality increases significantly above 7 hours spent sitting per day [11].

Is this really our problem?

Not very optimistic observations come from the Polish study Białystok PLUS, according to which, regardless of age and gender, every fourth Bialystok resident spends from 8 to 10 hours every day in a sitting position. People aged 70-80 understandably spend the most time sitting, while women aged 20-39 and men aged 30-39 (in almost the same proportion as seniors) and 40-49 sit for only a few minutes less per day. When men and women are compared, there are no differences among the youngest Bialystok residents during the working week (Monday-Friday). It is only in the age group of 30-39 that a trend becomes noticeable where men spend more time sitting, reaching a maximum difference (52 minutes on average) in the age group 40-49. The greater tendency for men (compared to women) to spend time sitting becomes even more apparent at the weekend - on their days off: women try to sit less (a few tens of minutes less compared to the working week), while most men treat sitting as a form of relaxation, reaching higher values on average than between Monday and Friday.

Why is this important and what can we do?

A sedentary lifestyle becomes part of our behaviour quite quickly and easily. It is a habit that is difficult to overcome due to the need to take action with completely different characteristics - movement and physical activity. Spending time sitting gives an apparent feeling of relaxation, while in the broad perspective of our health, it can have devastating effects. What should we do? The right answer is physical activity, selected in an appropriate manner to suit individual preferences and abilities of a given person. The most recommended type of physical activity is Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity (MVPA), which, if performed for more than 10 minutes, allows us to achieve health-promoting values of energy expenditure. This type of physical activity can be recognised by observing yourself while performing it - it should be accompanied by an accelerated heart rate, increased body temperature, increased sweating, and accelerated and deepened breathing. It is worth remembering that in such an effort we should not reach our maximum capacity, and its performance should be preceded by a warm-up and a phase of rest afterwards. Examples include walking with variable dynamics, cycling at a medium pace, swimming at a slow pace, doing breathing exercises and exercises to increase muscle flexibility, or dancing. We should also not forget to take regular breaks while sitting, during which it is advisable to do stretching exercises or exercises to improve our posture. It turns out that taking regular breaks while sitting for physical activity (of different intensity) can effectively lower blood pressure, triglyceride levels or blood glucose levels [12].

Our aim is to raise awareness about the issues of sedentary lifestyles. We want to encourage you to ask questions and discuss the issue of physical activity in our regions. What can we do to prevent the invisible pandemic of sedentary lifestyles? Are the places we live in conducive to physical activity? Can physical activity enthusiasts together with researchers generate added benefit for the local community?

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