New research to examine how sedentary behaviour is bad for our health

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A new worldwide study funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) will measure how certain physical behaviours, such as sitting for long periods of time, can impact health.

The £855,000 research project at the University College London (UCL), in collaboration with the University of Sydney, will look at how sedentary behaviour can lead to heart and circulatory conditions such as heart attack and stroke, in order to improve prevention.

Although physical inactivity is a well-known risk factor for heart and circulatory conditions, its understanding is limited. Most evidence comes from questionnaire-based studies that examine behaviours – such as amount of exercise, sitting, and sleep quality and duration – independently.

Researchers at UCL say that, as these behaviours are all part of the same 24-hour cycle, they must be examined together to see their true impact on health. This is because these behaviours interact, and spending too much time being physically inactive might affect the benefits of being active at other times.

Data has now been collected from 72,000 participants who have had their physical activity measured by a thigh-worn activity tracker over a prolonged period. The state-of-the-art devices can analyse a range of different actions, including how much time people spend sleeping, sitting down, standing up and moving around.

Information from these devices – generated from 13 different international studies – have been stored in a unique database. People involved in these studies will also be monitored over several years to record their health and hospital visits.

The new funding from the BHF means that the data can now be analysed so that researchers can closely examine the relationship between physical inactivity, sitting and sleeping and the prevalence of heart and circulatory conditions. They will also look at known genetic risk factors for heart and circulatory disease in the study participants and how these interact with physical activity and health outcomes.

Overall, the work could help shape new guidelines to improve the prevention of heart and circulatory diseases.

Mark Hamer, Professor of Sport & Exercise Medicine at the Institute of Sport, Exercise & Health at UCL, is leading the study.

Professor Hamer said: “Most of the evidence we have on physical behaviours is limited, which compromises our ability to make accurate associations to heart and circulatory disease. We now need to understand more about how an active lifestyle is maintained, and to do this we need to study large samples of people over their life course.

“By understanding this better, we can begin to make improved recommendations to the public. This will help understand about how an active lifestyle is maintained in order to change peoples’ lifestyles for the better.

“With lockdown restrictions meaning some people are spending increased time sitting down, such as by working at a desk or watching TV, it’s now even more important that we understand the impact this could have on people’s health.”

Dr Abigail Woodfin, Senior Research Adviser at the BHF, added: “Although it’s well-known that physical inactivity can increase the risk of heart and circulatory diseases, the exact relationship between exercise, sitting for prolonged periods and health is still unclear.

“Studying these behaviours together and in a large number of people from across the world will help us to establish this relationship and could help form critical tools for public health policy, health surveillance, and community and clinical medicine that involve lifestyle modification.

“Worryingly, the ability of the BHF to fund crucial projects like this is under threat. Coronavirus had had a devastating impact on our fundraising. That’s why – together with other medical research charities – we are calling on the Government to commit to a Life Sciences Charity Partnership Fund. This will ensure that the BHF and other medical research charities can continue to invest in the science that produces the breakthroughs that save and improve lives.”

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Lee Kettle
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