GSPH Researchers Receive $3 Million NIH Grant to Combat "Sitting Disease"

Issue Date: 
February 1, 2016

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health are bucking conventional thought about how to improve the health of sedentary people at risk for diabetes and heart disease. 

Armed with a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, physical-activity epidemiologist Andrea Kriska and her team have designed a new study aimed at fighting a condition popularly called “sitting disease.” 

Working with sedentary, overweight people, the researchers will investigate whether they can improve the health of participants with a program initially focusing on decreasing the amount of time participants spend sitting—rather than starting with an emphasis on increasing the amount of time they spend exercising. The study will test the concept that sitting less may be as important as participating in planned bouts of moderate intensity physical activity for sedentary people.

“To maintain a healthy lifestyle, national recommendations are that you get a minimum of about two-and-a-half hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity every week— but we know that there are a lot of people who do little, if any, physical activity on a regular basis,” said Kriska, a professor in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology. “For those people, getting them to exercise might not be as initially effective as working at the other end of the activity spectrum: trying to decrease the amount of time they spend sitting.” 

The grant will be used to create a new, alternate version of the Group Lifestyle Balance™ (GLB) program, a lifestyle program designed for overweight and inactive individuals who want to improve their health. The GLB program was modified for use in public health from the highly successful lifestyle intervention used in the U.S. Diabetes Prevention Program clinical research trial. That study demonstrated for the first time—in sites across the United States—that people at risk for diabetes who lost weight and increased their physical activity levels sharply reduced their risk for diabetes and heart disease, outperforming people who took a diabetes drug instead. Developed here in Pittsburgh by faculty from Pitt Public Health’s Diabetes Prevention Support Center, the GLB has been shown to be effective in a variety of diverse community settings, ranging from the work site and the military to community senior centers and primary care facilities.

The GLB program involves 22 sessions delivered over one year that focus on healthy lifestyle changes, including encouraging people to slowly and safely increase their levels of physical activity. The program introduces the idea of reducing sedentary behavior toward the end of the sessions, with the major emphasis on increasing physical activity levels throughout the program.  

The new grant will put the concept of sitting less right up front as the primary movement goal.

“So at the beginning, participants are not going to start tracking how much walking and biking they do. Instead, they’re going to think about how much time they spend sitting—and then start decreasing that time,” said co-investigator M. Kaye Kramer, an  assistant professor in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology and director of the school’s Diabetes Prevention Support Center.

The program will seek to enroll more than 300 people age 50 and older in the Pittsburgh region. Participants will be screened to ensure that they are at risk for diabetes or metabolic syndrome in order to test the program on those most likely to benefit from it. The research team will track participants’ weight, waist circumference, blood glucose and fat levels, blood pressure, physical function, quality of life and, of course, changes in sedentary behavior and physical activity.

“We believe that we’re going to see an increase in overall movement by encouraging people to sit less,” said Kriska. “And that will lead to a whole host of health improvements, from weight loss to decreasing risk factors for diabetes and heart disease.”