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Daily dose

The health risks of a desk job

Mutual of Omaha has installed treadmill desks to get employees to walk while they work. Mutual of Omaha has installed treadmill desks to get employees to walk while they work. (Chris Machian for The New York Times)
January 17, 2011

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Like many health-conscious folks, I slip in a workout whenever I can, aiming to really sweat about three or four times a week. The rest of the time, though, I pretty much sit — at my desk, in the car, on the couch in front of the TV. All that sitting may be increasing my odds of heart disease, according to a study published Tuesday in the European Heart Journal.

The study involved nearly 4,800 American volunteers who agreed to wear accelerometer devices to measure how much time they spent sitting and how many breaks they took to get up and walk around. After accounting for exercise, the researchers found that those who spent the most time being sedentary were more likely to have larger waists, worse cholesterol and insulin levels, and higher levels of dangerous inflammation — all risk factors for heart disease — compared with those who were the least sedentary.

The researchers also found that those who got up the least often for mini-breaks had higher heart disease risks than those who got up the most.

“This is perhaps the most convincing evidence yet that prolonged sitting is dangerous to our health,’’ says Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who was not involved with the study. “It may be an independent risk factor for heart disease, even after accounting for structured exercise.’’

Manson and her colleagues previously found in the Nurses’ Health Study that women who watched the most TV had the highest likelihood of being obese and developing diabetes. She says she carves out time, beyond her 30 minutes of daily exercise, to get up and walk the corridors around her office for a few minutes every hour or so.

“Being sedentary is a huge problem in modern times,’’ Manson says. “Many of us feel shackled to our computer, and really have to make a conscious effort to take breaks.’’ She recommends setting an alarm to go off throughout the day to remind yourself to get up and move. “It’s gotten so bad that many people will use e-mail to communicate with colleagues down the hall rather than getting up to talk to them face to face.’’

Guilty as charged.

But I’m inclined to change my habits after learning from the study what prolonged sitting may do to my body. Those fewer muscle contractions that the body gets from being immobile may result in more fats circulating in my bloodstream and a reduced sensitivity to the hormone insulin, a precursor to diabetes. It also lowers the rate of calorie-burning and probably contributes to age-related muscle loss.

While daily exercise is certainly crucial for avoiding these problems, so, too, is taking frequent breaks from sitting. As the Australian study authors write, “these findings . . . highlight the importance of considering prolonged sedentary time as a distinct health risk behavior that warrants explicit advice in future public health guidelines.’’

Manson agrees and says doctors need to talk to their patients about how dangerous it is to sit and sit. Companies should think about installing treadmill desks that allow you to walk and type at the same time, and, at the very least, have more meetings where folks stroll around the conference table rather than sit. DEBORAH KOTZ

Baldness drug linked to sex problems in men

Baldness or loss of sexual function? That’s the choice some men face when considering taking a pill called finasteride (Propecia) to stop their hair from thinning, according to researchers at Boston University School of Medicine. The drug is also used to treat a benign enlarged prostate condition.

In a recent review study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, the researchers culled data from a number of clinical trials and calculated that about 15 percent of Propecia users experienced decreased libido, ejaculatory disorders, and erectile dysfunction compared with 7 percent of those who took placebos.

Bottom line: Men considering Propecia for hair loss should weigh the small risk of sexual side effects. Rogaine, a liquid applied to the scalp, promises to just slow hair loss, not stop it altogether. D.K.

How to really quit smoking - for good

It’s not enough to simply promise to stub out the butts for your New Year’s resolution.

Massachusetts residents, though, should have a somewhat easier time given that smoking cessation programs are covered by the 2006 health law. Folks in Boston can also get two weeks of nicotine patches for free, while supplies last, from the Boston Public Health Commission; Mass. residents in other areas may qualify too, but there are certain restrictions. Call 800-Quit-Now for more details.

So what does it take to succeed at quitting? A study published last week in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that using an Internet program that detailed quitting approaches like nicotine therapy wasn’t enough for most to keep abstaining over a period of 18 months. Using an online program combined with individual telephone support raised success rates from 3.5 to 7.7 percent. D.K.

New blood test for down syndrome

A definitive blood test for Down syndrome may be on the near horizon, allowing pregnant women to know with near certainty whether their fetus has the genetic disorder without facing the small miscarriage risks associated with drawing amniotic fluid.

The test, which analyzes DNA material from the fetus circulating in the mother’s blood, was able to accurately detect all 86 fetuses with Down syndrome in 753 pregnant women deemed to be at high risk due to previous screening test results looking at other blood markers, according to a study published last week in the British Medical Journal. The test did, though, mistakenly identify Down in about 2 percent of fetuses that were later found not to have the genetic condition.

Given that more testing needs to be done in lower-risk populations, parents-to-be will probably need to wait a few more years before such a test becomes widely available. D.K.