Prolonged sitting labelled new public health enemy as study begins

07 July 2014

Professor Dawn Skelton

Professor Dawn Skelton

Almost three quarters of older people sit for more than 8 hours a day, leading to increased risk of obesity, depression and even death.

Now a landmark study, led by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), will develop techniques to help older people get out their chairs, improving their physical and mental health.

Professor Dawn Skelton, expert in Ageing and Health, will lead a multi-disciplinary team of more than 15 academics from five UK universities, funded by the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing programme.

She said: “Long periods of sitting are associated with a bigger waist, depression and social isolation, even an increased risk of death. These associations appear to be strong even if people are active in other parts of their day. It seems that prolonged sitting is the new ‘public health enemy’, but this study will look at how we can change that behaviour.

“Our whole culture is ‘to care’ for our older population and encourage them to sit down. Nursing home residents spend most of their day sitting and chairs in hospital patients encouraged to sit. We’ve known about the dangers of bed rest to bone and muscle for many years, so we should not be encouraging prolonged sitting.”

Researchers have already discovered that people say they sit for shorter periods than they actually do. A key part of the study will see the team unravelling the reasons behind this. 

The team, including researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and Salford, will look at how National Health Surveys - one of the main ways the health service and government works out how healthy the population is - can better capture the length of time people sit for.

To do this they will compare self-reporting with monitors fitted to the body that objectively record the amount of time spent during the day.

The team will also interview older people about what are they doing while sitting and during which parts of their day might they be willing to get up and be more active.

The scientists will work with two groups of older people, one from the west of Scotland and one from the east, both born in the 1930s. The two groups have engaged with studies in the past, meaning historical data such as blood samples, medical diagnoses, education and brain scans can be investigated to see how they are related to the amount of time the group spend sitting. 

The study also aims to discover how older people themselves think it is best to break up long periods of sitting.

Professor Skelton added: “Not all sitting is bad. People need to rest and there are many potential reasons why people become sedentary. But we should aim to get up regularly, say every hour, and move about.

“Researchers are learning more and more about the effects of sitting on the body and mind and the results of our study will help us further understand how and when we could intervene to increase regular movement.”

Find out more by visiting the GCU Seniors USP web page