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Couch Potato Today, Wheelchair Tomorrow? Study Links Sitting, Disability

Employee works on his computer at the office of CloudFactory, a Canadian startup that based itself in Kathmandu
An extra hour of sitting a day was linked with a higher risk of disability in a new study. Navesh Chitrakar / REUTERS

Here's another reason desk jockeys need to get up and move. Researchers are finding that sedentary behaviors like sitting even just an hour extra per day can up your risk for disabilities in later life — even if you are a moderately active gym rat.

The study published Wednesday in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health is the first to show that sedentary behavior alone may be an independent risk factor for disability, separate from lack of moderate physical activity, its authors say.

To be clear, exercise is important, but it is only the beginning of a healthy lifestyle, said lead author Dorothy Dunlop, Ph.D., professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

"The message is that we can work on what the government recommends in terms of moderate physical activity, but we need to reduce sitting time by replacing it with some light activity," Dunlop said. That doesn't mean sweat and spandex, but rather simple activities like pushing a grocery cart, strolling through a museum, and even getting up once an hour to walk around.

The researchers strapped devices to the waists of some 2,200 adults aged 60 and older to monitor their activity and found that every additional hour a day spent sitting was strongly linked to a doubling of the risk of disability. So, if one 60-something year old person is sedentary for 12 hours a day, and another is sedentary for 13 hours a day, the second individual is 50 percent more likely to be disabled, according to the study.

"I'm not surprised that 30 minutes of activity several times a week doesn't compensate for nine hours a day sitting around," said family medicine specialist Dr. Robert Truax of University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. The good news, he said, is that it's never too late to get up off our butts and get healthier.