A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association analyzed information from 3,592 African Americans living in Jackson, Mississippi. All of the participants were analyzed over a course of nearly nine years. The researchers found that those who spent more than four hours of their day just sitting at home in front of the TV were around 50 percent more likely to have heart problems, such as receiving a heart disease diagnosis or experiencing a heart attack. They were also more likely to die during the period of the study than the individuals who spent less than two hours of their day watching TV.
On the other hand, the participants who said they spent most of their day at work sitting down at their desk were no more likely to develop heart problems or die during the study period than their counterparts who said they “never or seldom” sat at work.
While it’s not entirely clear exactly why sitting in front of the TV is worse than spending all day sitting at work, scientists believe that the time of day may play a role, since most people watch TV at the end of the day around the time they eat dinner.
The circumstances around sitting down matters
“The combination of eating a large meal such as dinner and then sitting for hours could also be particularly harmful,” said senior author of the study Keith Diaz, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. According to Diaz, he and the other researchers plan to conduct more studies to determine precisely why sitting plus watching TV is more harmful than sitting at work, and whether Diaz’s hypothesis that eating a large meal beforehand is actually a factor.
Diaz and the other researchers have suggested that people actually spend more time being sedentary when they’re watching TV, since they have more chances of getting up and moving around while at work. People can go to the bathroom, visit a co-worker or head out for lunch. (Related: Being a couch potato is ruining your heart, study shows.)
Furthermore, Diaz believes that the increased cognitive demands of work could also play a role. “Work place sitting is far more mentally active where we are using our brains to think creatively, problem solve, socialize, etc.,” wrote Diaz in an email interview. “In comparison, TV viewing typically involves less mental functioning.”
The researchers have also noted that a more diverse pool of participants is needed in future research, as their study focused on employed African American adults who lived in a single city in the Southeastern US. Because of this, it’s unclear how well the findings can be applied to other populations, even if the researchers believe it can be applied to anyone living a mostly sedentary lifestyle.
What is clear is that people who spend most of their days sitting down must start becoming more active, especially since couch potatoes are more likely to become obese. Engaging in lifestyle risk reduction interventions, such as the American Heart Association’s Simple 7 Plan, can be enough to lower your risk of heart disease.
These interventions include managing your blood pressure, controlling your cholesterol, reducing your blood sugar, losing weight, quitting smoking, engaging in more physical activity and eating a more natural and heart-healthy diet. You don’t have to do them all right away, but you must start on at least one if you want to counteract the negative aspects of sitting at your desk at work for over eight hours a day. If you do all of these steps, then you’re already on the road toward ideal cardiovascular health.