Health and Wellness

Sitting at work may not be as bad for you as sitting watching TV

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc | Blend Images | Getty Images

Desk-bound workers have heard it a thousand times through an array of media reports and research studies: Prolonged sitting at work is hazardous to your health. But new research published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests the worse culprit maybe something else.

Sitting at work may not be as bad for your heart and longevity as sitting down and watching television for several hours.

"We found that not all types of sedentary behavior are created equal and that maybe we should focus more on decreasing television viewing than focusing on occupational sitting," says Jennette Garcia, an assistant professor of sport and exercise science at the University of Central Florida and lead the researcher for the study.

For the study, Garcia's team looked at the sitting routines of more than 3,500 African Americans over the age of 21 in Jackson, Mississippi over a 12-year period between 2000 and 2012. (Garcia says they focused solely on African Americans because they are at greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease then other demographics, but she would suspect to find similar findings in other populations.)

"We are seeing that television viewing was associated with a greater cardiovascular disease risk in African Americans compared to occupational sitting," Garcia tells CNBC Make It.

One of the driving factors, she says, is that when most of the respondents were watching television (mainly during the evening), they typically didn't get up and walk around during commercials breaks, whereas at work, they were more likely to get up at some point.

"[Another] one is that when you are watching TV, you tend to be snacking and usually when you're snacking around the television (I know this from myself), I'm not eating fruits and vegetables. It's usually unhealthy foods," she says, which is what they found in their participants.

To participate in the study, the subjects were asked to report the amount of time they'd spent sitting at work, watching television and exercising each day, as well as their lifestyle habits and health history.

After adjusting for various health and lifestyle factors, the report found that "often or always" sitting at work was not associated with a greater risk of heart disease or even death. But those who watched four or more hours of consecutive television per day had a 50% higher risk of developing health issues and death, compared to those who watched two hours or less per day.

However, participants who engaged in 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day were to able to alleviate some of those hazardous effects caused by their prolong television viewing habits.

Dr. Natalie Azar, a medical contributor at NBC and a clinical assistant professor of rheumatology at New York University's Langone Medical Center says while the research is "good news" for those who have 9-to-5 desk jobs, it doesn't mean that sitting all day at work is good for you by any means.

"I think the message is that it's not so much that 'sitting' is bad for you. If you're sitting, you're sitting. You can't sit healthier than someone else, but you can get up frequently and take breaks from sitting at your desk [or while watching TV]," Azar says.

Also, she says the study suggests that the sitting behavior with prolonged television watching is also associated with other unhealthy behaviors related to diet and exercise.

Dr. Robert Glatter, associate professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City agrees, and encourages people to sit in moderation whether is at work or at home.

"If you do tend to sit for long periods, consider using a stability ball instead of a standard chair [or couch]. By engaging your core to maintain your posture, you will burn extra calories while increasing mental focus and attention," Glatter says.

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