What Women Over 50 Should Know About Sitting and Heart Health

  • Sitting more during the day and for longer at a time is linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women.
  • In a new study, researchers looked at the sitting behavior of 102 Hispanic women and 416 non-Hispanic women.
  • Women’s cardiovascular symptoms also become more pronounced after menopause — although everyone’s risk for cardiovascular disease increases with age.

Exercise offers many health benefits, from reducing your risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes to strengthening your bones and improving your mental health.

But even regular exercise can’t undo all the negative health effects that come from spending much of your day sitting — something many of us probably do.

A new study adds more support to the idea that our modern, screen-filled, sedentary lifestyle is taking a toll on our health, including increasing our risk for cardiovascular disease.

Researchers found that postmenopausal women with overweight or obesity who spent more of their day sitting — or sitting for longer periods — had worse metabolic risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

This was true for both Hispanic and non-Hispanic older women, although there were some differences between the two groups.

“This study really shows how significant sitting is in terms of its effect on your heart,” said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist from New York and a national Go Red for Women volunteer, who wasn’t involved in the new research.

Sitting linked to greater heart disease risk

In the new study, researchers looked at the sitting behavior of 102 Hispanic women and 416 non-Hispanic women. Women in both groups were postmenopausal and had overweight or obesity.

Information on the women came from three separate studies. Researchers, though, measured women’s sedentary behavior in the same way using wearable activity monitors.

This included measuring both the total time women spent sitting during the day as well as the average length of the sitting sessions.

Researchers focused on postmenopausal women because older Americans tend to have the highest levels of sedentary behavior.

Women’s cardiovascular symptoms also become more pronounced after menopause — although everyone’s risk for cardiovascular disease increases with age.

This postmenopausal bump may be due to a decline in the level of the natural hormone estrogen.

This increased risk for older women happens even though they tend to be more active than older men.

In the new study, women who spent more of their day sitting or doing so in longer sessions had worse biomarkers related to cardiovascular disease. This included body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, fasting glucose, insulin resistance, and triglycerides.

The effect was more pronounced for women with obesity compared to overweight women.

This connection between sedentary behavior and cardiovascular disease risk remained even when researchers took into account women’s physical activity levels.

That means being sedentary was linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease even in women who exercised regularly.

Steinbaum says that when it comes to heart health, we need to think about physical activity and time spent sitting as two separate things.

“Does exercise make up for an exorbitant amount of sitting? The answer is no,” she said. “That’s why you should get up and move more often during the day.”

The authors of the new study write that more effort should be made by physicians and other healthcare providers to encourage people to not only exercise more, but also to sit less.

“Traditionally, clinicians focus on encouraging their patients to exercise more and increase physical activity with little focus specifically on sitting time,” the researchers write in the paper.

The new study was published Feb. 17 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Aim for more movement during the day

Researchers were also able to see whether sitting affected Hispanic women and non-Hispanic women differently.

On average, Hispanic women spent less of their day sitting and had shorter sitting sessions compared to non-Hispanic women.

Both groups saw a link between greater sedentary behavior and worse cardiovascular disease biomarkers.

But the link between the average length of the sitting session and fasting blood glucose was stronger for Hispanic women than for non-Hispanic women.

This fits with an earlier study that found self-reported sedentary behavior was linked to higher risk of type 2 diabetes, with differences seen among various racial and ethnic groups.

On the other hand, the link between total sitting time and BMI was stronger for non-Hispanic women than Hispanic women.

Because of the way the new study was designed, researchers were unable to say that increased sitting time causes the worsening of the biomarkers, only that the two are connected.

However, laboratory studies have found that frequently interrupting sitting sessions can improve health markers like glucose control and lipid metabolism.

Some studies suggest that you should get up and move about every 30 minutes.

Steinbaum says you can also increase your heart rate at the same time by doing something like walking up and down a flight of stairs.

“Because of the profound effect sitting has on the metabolism and the risk factors for heart disease, physical activity needs to be part of our lives all day long, not just when we are consciously exercising,” she said.

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