Sitting down all day isn’t as bad for younger women, new study reveals

The first study to examine how men and women react differently to sedentary lifestyles is challenging all we know about the dangers of sitting down for too long.

“Sitting down is the new smoking” – that’s the terrifying message we’ve seen splashed over newspaper health pages for a number of years. Except, for women (particularly premenopausal ones), that might not actually be the case, because a new piece of research suggests that the detrimental health impacts of a sedentary lifestyle and sugary diet are actually way more severe for men.

Researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine have discovered that men and women react differently to changes in step count and diet. They’ve been examining the insulin resistance (a process that makes it harder for the body to clear glycogen– increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes) of 36 young and healthy men and women, by cutting their step count from 10,000 to 5,000 steps a day and getting them increase their sugary drink intake to six cans of pop a day. 

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Only the men were found to react to the sedentary lifestyle and increased sugar intake; scientists found the interventions led to decreased leg blood flow and a drop in a protein called adropin. Adropin regulates insulin sensitivity and is an important biomarker for cardiovascular disease.

“We know that incidence of insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease is lower in premenopausal women compared to men, but we wanted to see how men and women reacted to reduced physical activity and increased sugar in their diet over a short period of time,” says Dr Camila Manrique-Acevedo, MD, associate professor of medicine and co-author of the study. 

Now, it’s worth pointing out that this is an incredibly small study; at most, it probably looked at the reactions of 18 women. And it’s also important to flag that 5,000 steps is still more than the NHS-estimated UK average of 3,000-4,000 steps. 

Is this yet more proof that most studies are conducted on men?

Published in the journal Endocrinology, the study confirms that younger women are less likely to suffer health issues as a result of (short-term) sedentary, sugary-laden lifestyles than men.

It’s interesting that this is the first piece of research to be published actually examining the ways in which both sexes react differently to the same lifestyle interventions. It suggests perhaps that most of the studies previously published on the subject either ignored sex-based differences or were mainly conducted on men. 

There are countless studies on the terrifying impacts of sitting down like this 2012 review which concludes that sitting can increase our risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death by any cause. This 2009 study found just two weeks of sedentary behaviour is linked to a major increase in insulin resistance – a key diver of type 2 diabetes. But the 2012 review makes no mention of sex and the 2009 study was conducted only on men.

This is reassuring news if you work a desk job and can’t control how much you have to sit down during the day.

How to move more during the day

While it stands to reason that the more static we are, the less fit and healthy we’re likely to be, this study suggests that perhaps (at least in the short-term) we needn’t be quite so stressed at the prospect of having a sofa day. Year after year, we’re faced with terrifying news stories about how our jobs are killing us (apart from those of us with stand-up or walking desks);while this study hasn’t delved into the longer-term impacts of desk life, it does offer a little more nuance to the subject. 

If you do struggle to take time away from your screen, then it is really worth trying to work out when and how you can add a bit more movement to your day. Rather than trying – and failing – to get to the gym, why not have a go at fitness snacking or turning all your phone calls into walking meetings? You’ll soon rack up the steps and potentially boost your productivity. 

Images: Getty

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