When Dr. Jennifer Copeland answers emails from her stand-up computer desk, it’s because she knows the data and is at the forefront of what science is saying – prolonged sitting is a legitimate health risk, and something we’re learning more about every day.
Copeland, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Lethbridge, delivered a PUBlic Professor Series lecture Thursday night at Lethbridge City Hall, titled Sitting, Standing and Stepping: The Health Implications of our Daily Behaviour.
It’s a paradigm shift for her and the exercise world as researchers are now beginning to look more closely at how sedentary time affects our overall health.
“Not that long ago, people started to question, whether it’s not the activity, but rather all the sitting the rest of our day,” says Copeland. “I’ve been involved in looking at the effects of sedentary time, sort of the opposite end of the movement continuum. What happens when you sit all the time?”
She explains that even the most active people are still very sedentary, with the average Canadian sitting about nine to 10 hours per day.
“You can train for a marathon and still spend 85 per cent of your time sitting,” she says.
This thinking has given birth to the catch phrase, ‘sitting is the new smoking’. Copeland agrees, in part, with the statement but says it is not entirely accurate.
“From a risk perspective, it might actually be true. An hour of sitting has been equated with smoking two cigarettes, and while it’s great such a statement resonates with people, I think it oversimplifies the physiology. Smoke is a carcinogen, and it’s easy for me to tell you what to do with smoking, ‘Don’t smoke, at all’, but I can’t tell you to never sit down.”
What it amounts to is a new way of looking at how we live our day-to-day lives, and it has inspired Copeland in her research activities.
Originally from Atlantic Canada – Amherst, Nova Scotia in particular – Copeland earned her undergraduate degree in biology at Mount Allison University. Always into exercising, she discovered that her interests were primarily directed at physiology and wrote her fourth-year paper on the effects of exercise on physiology. It spurred her to pursue a master’s at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) that focused on exercise and sport science, and she later completed a PhD in exercise science at UNB.
“Once you study physiology you start to get curious as to what is happening to the body when you are exercising,” she says.
For the majority of her research life, that focus was directed towards studies on physical activity across the lifespan and healthy aging. Now, the research is from the other end of the spectrum.
“It’s called behaviour dynamics. We’ve moved away from looking at everything in isolation, such as how much physical activity do you do, how much sedentary time is in your day, and how much you sleep, because we know that they all interact,” she says. “It’s so easy for me to tell you to not smoke. It’s another thing to tell you how much you should move and how much you should sit, because we don’t know that yet, and that’s what makes it such interesting research.”
Copeland is active, a long distance runner who has competed in seven marathons and five ultra-marathons and who has run as far as 100 kilometres in a race. Being in great physical condition though doesn’t preclude her from worrying about how much time she sits in her office when she’s not on the running trail – hence the stand-up desk.
“We have been trying to get people to be active for decades and physical activity levels have not really improved,” she says, citing studies that say only 15 per cent of Canadians get 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity.
“We're not making much headway in terms of getting people moving, so maybe we need to think about another strategy, such as trying to sit less. If you're not going to do any vigorous physical activity, what if you get more light activity throughout your day? Are you better off if you stand a bit more, or maybe walk around a bit more? Research is suggesting that you are.”
Get up and get moving has never seemed so relevant.