Sedentary lifestyle is linked to Type 2 Diabetes

The risk of developing type 2 diabetes is increased by several factors, one of which is genetic predisposition. However, there are many other underlying causes based on lifestyle and environment, such as diet, overall calorie intake, poor sleep habits, and lack of physical activity. In fact, it is a well-researched fact that one of the major consequences of inactivity is type 2 diabetes and obesity. Continued research in this field shows that long periods of sitting can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, even if you stick to a daily exercise plan.

Unfortunately, the conditions of modern life mean that many of us spend a lot of time sitting down, whether it’s at work, in the car, or at home in front of the TV. While the research in this field is alarming and worrisome, it’s not surprising. When we consider the evolution of the human body, it’s clear that we are not designed to sit all day without regular bouts of activity. We evolved to engage in physical work in a social community, with constant use of our bodies. The way by which we work and relax has resulted in a large discrepancy between what we should be doing and what we are doing when it comes to physical activity and overall longevity and health.

A 2016 study published in Diabetologia [1] suggests that the risk of type 2 diabetes is increased by prolonged periods of sitting. Unfortunately, going to the gym or working out after a long day of sitting doesn’t balance things out and reduce the risks associated with inactivity. Research suggests that no matter how much walking and other exercises you do, every hour you spend sitting ramps up your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that “An extra hour of sedentary time was associated with a 22% increased [risk] for type 2 diabetes and a 39% increased [risk] for the metabolic syndrome.

However, the researchers found that the study has limitations, concluding that “The pattern in which sedentary time was accumulated was weakly associated with the presence of the metabolic syndrome. These results suggest that sedentary behaviour may play a significant role in the development and prevention of type 2 diabetes, although longitudinal studies are needed to confirm our findings.

The Risks of Sedentary Lifestyle: It’s Not Just Diabetes

It is worrisome to consider that despite including regular exercise into your lifestyle, you may still be at risk of type 2 diabetes if you spend a lot of time sitting. Living a sedentary lifestyle is a health risk as it increases the chances of developing metabolic syndrome -  a collection of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excessive visceral fat (fat around the abdomen), and unhealthy LDL & HDL levels. Metabolic syndrome causes the cells to be resistant to insulin, meaning they cannot utilize insulin effectively to absorb glucose, causing the blood sugar to spike. What’s more, insulin resistance is a well-known type 2 diabetes risk factor, therefore increasing the risk of heart disease, eye conditions, kidney disorders, and peripheral nerve damage, (which increases the risk of limb amputation).

The negative effects of sedentary lifestyles reach further than an increased risk of diabetes and metabolic disorders. Studies show that excessive sitting contributes to chronic diseases such as heart disease, and even premature death [2] [3] [4] [5]. You read that right, too much sitting can end your life. In fact, the World Health Organization has listed physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality.

A recurring finding in many of these studies is that leisurely physical activity doesn’t completely mitigate the effects of sedentary lifestyles and uninterrupted sitting. Further, other sedentary lifestyle risks include an increased risk of cancer, muscular pain (especially the back and neck), and even dementia.
However, the answer to this question remains murky; how does a sedentary lifestyle affect diabetes? The consensus is that prolonged sitting interferes with the body’s ability to regulate glucose uptake, fat breakdown, and blood pressure by slowing down glucose and lipid metabolism [6].

Take steps to manage your overall health. Literally!

To prevent and manage obesity, insulin resistance, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, regular exercise and healthy diet adjustments remain the most recommended therapies. These simple, tried-and-true therapies are front-runners for very good reasons.

Considering the recent evidence linking prolonged sitting with cardio-metabolic damage and overall health despite regular exercise, it’s important to find ways to increase movement throughout the day, especially if your job, commute, or home life requires a lot of sitting.

An article published in Mayo Clinic articulated how even the smallest movements can impact your health, “The impact of movement — even leisurely movement — can be profound. For starters, you'll burn more calories. This might lead to weight loss and increased energy. Even better, the muscle activity needed for standing and other movement seems to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body. When you sit, these processes stall — and your health risks increase. When you're standing or actively moving, you kick the processes back into action.” [7]

The Diabetes Journal published a study [8] suggesting that breaking up periods of sitting with short bursts of light to moderate walking can reduce the glucose and insulin levels in obese people after meals, observing that “this may improve glucose metabolism and potentially be an important public health and clinical intervention strategy for reducing cardiovascular risk.

It’s time to get moving, and often, are you game?

  1. Van der Berg et al. Associations of total amount and patterns of sedentary behaviour with type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome: The Maastricht Study. Diabetologia. 2016
  2. Bankoski A et al. Sedentary activity associated with metabolic syndrome independent of physical activity. Diabetes Care. 2011
  3. Julie Corliss. Too much sitting linked to heart disease, diabetes, premature death. Harvard Health Publications. 2015
  4. Dunstan et al. Too much sitting – A health hazard. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. 2012. 
  5. Biswas et al. Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2015
  6. NHS Choices. Why sitting too much is bad for your health. 2014
  7. James A. Levine. What are the risks of sitting too much? Mayo Clinic.
  8. Dunstan et al. Breaking Up Prolonged Sitting Reduces Postprandial Glucose and Insulin Responses. Diabetes Care. 2012.