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University of Gloucestershire experts examine links between prolonged sitting, the pandemic and cardiovascular dysfunction

After more than a year of lockdown-enforced inactivity for much of the UK, health and physical activity researchers at the University of Gloucestershire have been investigating how a combination of sitting and eating a high-fat meal impacts cardiovascular risk.

Dr Simon Fryer and Keeron Stone, exercise and sports experts at the University of Gloucestershire, are leading several new projects seeking to investigate the short and long-term impacts of the pandemic on physical activity, cardiovascular health, and people’s wellbeing.

Keeron Stone

Sitting up to 14 hours a day during lockdown

A growing body of evidence indicates that sitting down too much and for too long poses a significant threat to your health, with a number of studies linking inactivity with being overweight, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.

According to the research team at the University, many UK adults are spending around nine hours a day sitting down to work, watch TV, read and travel by car, bus or train. However, the University team’s recent data indicates that this has risen to a startling 14 hours a day during the COVID-19 pandemic-enforced lockdown.

Dr Simon Fryer explains: “Our studies found that uninterrupted sitting, even for an hour, can cause cardiovascular dysfunction, particularly in the legs, something which can be prevented by regularly breaking up sitting using simple aerobic activities such as walking or light resistance exercise.

“Our latest data compilation has brought together all known prolonged sitting studies to provide a better understanding of its effects on poor cardiovascular health. We’ve also examined how physical activity helps to lessen associated risks.

“Extended uninterrupted sitting should clearly be avoided and, when this isn’t possible, taking short walking breaks or body weight exercises is highly recommended.”

Simon Fryer

High-fat diets contributing to 160,000 UK deaths?

Also, “High fat diets are often associated with circulatory disease, which results in up to 160,000 deaths in the UK each year,” continues Dr Fryer.

“We know that eating high fat meals and long periods of uninterrupted sitting both independently contribute to vascular dysfunction. What we didn’t understand until recently, is whether the combination of these two behaviours makes the dysfunction even worse.

“Our latest findings show this is the case, and that eating a meal high in fat before sitting uninterrupted for three hours significantly increases vascular dysfunction over and above sitting after eating a low-fat meal.

Investigating long COVID links

The team are also now starting work aimed at uncovering whether the poor cardiovascular function seen with sitting too much carries a greater risk of cardiovascular dysfunction in patients suffering with ‘long-COVID’ syndrome.

Keeron Stone adds: “Mounting evidence suggests that long COVID may be caused by an exacerbated inflammatory response, another key contributor to vascular dysfunction.

“We’re now investigating the potential effects of uninterrupted sitting for individuals suffering long COVID syndrome to better understand what the risks might be, and whether simple physical activity strategies can reduce any negative consequences.”

In the wake of these findings and ongoing research, Dr Fryer and Keeron Stone are calling on the government, industry and schools to consider the introduction of a set of ‘Physical Inactivity Guidelines’ to help educate the public about the health risks associated with periods of prolonged, uninterrupted sitting. Dr Fryer concludes: “Educating people about the risks of spending too much time sitting with little or no physical activity interruption could help alleviate a surge in cardiovascular complications later in life. This may be even more important following the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the duty of government, businesses and educational institutions to help raise awareness of these negative health behaviours before they become another health pandemic.”