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Can effects of sitting be erased with exercise?

A spate of study findings have suggested that sitting for too long throughout the day can harm our health regardless of whether we exercise or eat well. In fact, some researchers have considered sedentary practices to be akin to smoking, as a lifestyle habit that can raise disease risks independent of other health practices.

But a new finding suggests that regular bouts of exercise can counteract the effects of being glued to a computer screen all day in an office cubicle. Researchers from the American Cancer Society and the University of Texas School of Public Health looked at the sitting habits of more than 1300 men and found, as expected, that those who reported sitting the longest — more than 22 hours per week in front of a TV or behind the wheel of a car — were more likely to have increased blood pressure and cholesterol levels compared to those who sat fewer than nine hours a week. They were also more likely to have a higher body mass index, waist size, and have early signs of diabetes like insulin resistance.

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But those increased risks from prolonged sitting were largely erased in those who reported exercising regularly and who were deemed physically fit based on their performance on a treadmill test, according to the study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

A study from January that also took into account exercise habits when investigating the harmful effects of sitting came to the same conclusion.

“Is sedentary behavior the new smoking? Is it an independent risk factor? Based on this study, it’s not,” said study leader Kerem Shuval, a senior research specialist in nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society. “But I still think we can personally recommend [that people] sit less and move more.”

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A good rule of thumb, he said, is to follow the government’s guidelines on exercise: to get 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity — brisk walking, dancing, gardening — each week or 75 minutes of high intensity activity like aerobics, running, or cycling. Muscle-strengthening activities — weight lifting, yoga, or pilates — should also be done two days a week.

About 56 percent of Massachusetts residents met the government guideline for 150 minutes of moderate activity in 2014, according to a new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fewer than one-third met the muscle-strengthening guideline — and just 23 percent met both guidelines. (That’s slightly better than the national average.)

If you’re stuck in your desk job and don’t make it to the gym as often as you’d like, are there other ways to attenuate added health risks? Yes, Shuval said, if you make a point to stay active at work by using the stairs, getting up frequently to move around, and walking over to people in your office instead of sending an email.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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