A recent American Cancer Society (ACS) study shows that people who sit more than six hours per day don't live as long as those who sit for three hours or less. The results are true even if the people who sit for a longer time still exercise regularly. The problem is being inactive rather than not exercising enough. What does that mean for if you sit at a desk eight hours every day (and more hours on the couch every evening)? It means that sitting around is cutting years off your life.

Move it or lose it

Countless studies link sitting for long periods of time with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. To reduce the chance of getting those conditions means exercising and losing weight. This research is the first major study to look specifically at the relationship between sitting and lifespan. It suggests that just stressing the need to exercise hasn't given us the whole picture. Along with increasing exercise, we have to reduce inactivity.

The drawbacks of sitting

Scientists think that sitting for long periods of time causes serious health problems because of how it affects your metabolism. That change in metabolism can make you gain too much weight, get heart disease or be more likely to get chronic diseases (or cause any of those conditions to get worse). Patrice Winter, spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, says, "It makes sense that our health is impacted by high levels of inactivity. The human body is designed to move, not to collapse in a chair for hours on end."

What's more, sitting is physically draining. "When you're slumped over a desk all day, you don't breathe as fully, your heart, lungs, stomach and other organs are compressed, you don't burn as many calories and you're more likely to have an increased BMI rate [get obese]," Winter says. "But, when you stand, stretch, walk and move around, your heart beats better and your blood vessels enhance circulation. All your organs, joints and spine work best when they're allowed to move."

That's all well and good for carpenters, farmers, baristas, nurses and teachers who are on their feet all day, but what about office workers? Winter says you don't have to quit your desk job to reduce some of the health impacts of sitting. "Just find ways to incorporate more movement and standing time into your workday and find a better way to sit."

Ways to stand tall

Try these 10 tips for building a healthier day where you work.

  1. Move office furniture and create a small area for standing, stretching and walking in place.
  2. Stand up, stretch and move every hour, and shift your weight in your chair every half hour. Set a reminder in your office calendar so you don't forget.
  3. Try working at an adjustable or standing desk or place your computer on a counter for part of your day.
  4. Practice active sitting to improve posture and circulation. Winter says, "sit up straight with your hips above your knees and both feet on the floor. This creates a tripod of weight distribution between your feet and your bottom in the chair."
  5. Use an exercise ball as an office chair. Staying balanced on the ball engages core muscles and automatically creates Winter's tripod seating effect.
  6. Invest in an office chair that moves with you, is fully adjustable, keeps your bottom higher than your knees and supports active sitting.
  7. Schedule regular exercise sessions of 30 to 60 minutes per day plus additional physical activity throughout your workday. Take the stairs, bike to work, jog during your lunch hour, park a few blocks from your office or walk.
  8. Do desk yoga—forward bends, neck rolls, leg lifts, seated mountain pose, ankle and wrist twirls. Even small movements improve circulation, reduce stiffness and contribute to overall health.
  9. Watch what you eat. Eat and drink enough for the amount of work your body actually does. In other words, don't eat like a lumberjack if you work like an executive.
  10. Encourage coworkers to walk, stretch and exercise with you and make fitness part of your work culture.

As for couch time at the end of the day, consider watching television while using an exercise bike or treadmill. Or make sure everyone in your family gets up and moves periodically—have a dance party during commercials. And if that's too much, try a rocking chair. It actually uses muscles, and it's better than sitting still. Whatever it takes, be sure to stand up for your right to better long-term health.

Published on Oct. 1, 2011; updated on April 22, 2014.