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Hours of sitting: What’s your cancer risk?

Focused on Health - February 2014

by Brittany Cordeiro

You spend the day sitting behind a desk. You commute home to relax, sit and watch TV, read a book or play computer games. Like most Americans, you’ll spend more than 8 hours of your day sitting. desk stretch

And sitting for several hours a day puts your health at risk – even if you exercise regularly.

"Extended sitting raises your risk for colorectal, ovarian and endometrial cancers, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma," says Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at MD Anderson.  It also increases your risk for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Luckily, reducing your sitting time can be simple. "At least once an hour, get up and move. Stand while you’re on the phone or walk around the house during TV commercial breaks," Basen-Engquist says. "A few minutes of light activity throughout the day can add up and help lower your cancer risks."

Basen-Engquist shares more tips to reduce prolonged sitting.

Cut back on screen time

Put down the remote. Research shows that for every hour of television you watch after age 25, your life expectancy goes down by almost 22 minutes.  But the real culprit isn't your TV. It's the time you spend sitting when you're binge watching.

"Cut back on TV, video game and computer screen time, and you'll be more likely to engage in active behavior," Basen-Engquist says.

When you spend time behind your screen, fit in breaks to move around. You also can choose active-play video games that'll boost your heart rate or watch your favorite show while riding an exercise bike. 

danceChoose an active leisure activity

"Relax with an activity that doesn't require sitting," Basen-Engquist says. Take a fun dance class, work in your garden or walk around your neighborhood.

"You'll burn about 140 extra calories per day to help you maintain a healthy weight."

Use technology

Most email providers will allow you to schedule an alert to remind you to move every hour.

There's an app for everything, including ones that remind you to take a get-up-and-move break. Some apps also provide tools to track your activity. Then, they use charts and graphs to display your activity over time.

Knowing the steps you take, or don't take, can be useful. Basen-Engquist uses a pedometer and tries to get at least 500 steps an hour.

READ ALSO: How to choose a good health app

walkingBuild activity into your day

"Even short spurts of moderate to vigorous physical activity can get your heart pumping and improve your health," Basen-Engquist says. So, build activity into your day.

Park at the far end of the parking lot, take the stairs or walk while you're on the phone. Tidying the house also can limit couch time.

Reduce sitting at work  

Most adults sit at their job. But you can find simple ways to move more without disrupting your work. Have a walking meeting, stand during seminars or perform desk exercises.  You can even ask your co-workers to join you for laps around the office.

Change your work environment. Office equipment, like standing and treadmill desks, are gaining popularity. "Working from an upright position uses more muscles, expends more energy and burns more calories than sitting," Basen-Engquist says.

WATCH: Flex at your desk – Exercise without leaving the office

Get regular exercise

Cutting back on your sitting time is good for your health. But you still need regular exercise to further reduce your cancer risks. Aim for two and a half hours of moderate physical activity or an hour and a half of vigorous physical activity each week.

So, set a reminder or phone a friend to help you move more and sit less.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center