You have probably heard it before, but yes, sitting all day is bad for your health. As a matter of fact, there is a growing consensus that prolonged sitting is, “the new smoking”. Many of us are spending more than equal parts of our days sitting down or lounging — an average of nine hours a day for adults in the U.S. If your job requires you to sit long hours day in and day out you may want to consider how this may be negatively affecting your health.
Sitting is natural if done for short periods of time, but the problems are not with sitting itself. Sedentary behavior, that is, activities in a sitting or reclining posture requiring low levels of energy expenditure, has been linked to serious negative effects on our physical and mental health. The WHO has cited physical inactivity as the fourth biggest killer on the planet. Our generation is more sedentary than those prior due to the rise of technology and the reduced need for manual work. We live in a culture of convenience, where so much of what we need is right at our fingertips. While technology has certainly made life easier, it has many drawbacks as well. As human beings, we are not designed to live a life of inertia. When thinking about how much time you sit, don’t forget to include the sitting involved in traveling to and from work, or collapsing on the couch once you get home.
If you spend a lot of time sitting down at your job, it may be time to look at the specifics of how this can impact your health.
The Problem with Sitting Too Much
Over the past ten years, a growing body of evidence has linked sedentary behavior to increased risk of chronic disease and increases in all-cause mortality – regardless of regular exercise. That’s right, working out after work won’t negate the effects of sitting all day! When we sit for more of the day than we move, we program our central nervous system and brain to “slow down”. Your body is controlled by the CNS and cannot work efficiently at a slow pace. What goes in directly effects what comes out. There’s not one part of the bodily system that doesn’t suffer from sitting down all day. Your immune system, cardiovascular system and hormones are all impeded by a sedentary lifestyle.
Prolonged sitting at work is also a common, and overlooked, cause of musculoskeletal disorders such as neck pain, back pain, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome, among other ailments. Excessive sitting decreases overall flexibility, particularly in the hips and back. Flexible hips aid in balancing the body, but by sitting too long, the hip flexor muscles become short and tense. You may lose muscle in your back making it harder for your spine to stay properly aligned, making you more prone to injury, and future back problems. Sitting too long also results in balance issues and increased stiffness. Additionally, your lumbar spine is likely to suffer if you are hunched over a computer or desk all day.
Being sedentary increases the likelihood of weight gain, diabetes and cardiovascular issues such as heart disease and strokes. Extended sitting slows the body’s metabolism affecting things like HDL levels (good cholesterol). Calorie burning is significantly reduced and lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that assists with the breakdown of fat, dramatically drops.
Prolonged sitting and standing puts excessive pressure on your legs, causing the veins to stop working properly. This is called venous insufficiency. Excess sitting causes circulation issues and reduces blood flow to your organs.
Too much sitting can also affect mental health. Studies have shown people that sit for seven or more hours are three times more likely to have symptoms of depression than those who do not. The body is an inflammatory environment and when high stress hormones have no release, it can lead to anxiety and depression. Depression zaps our energy and motivation which results in more sitting!
How to Prevent Damage
Now for the good news! The health risks and dangers caused by a sedentary lifestyle can be prevented simply by moving more during the day.
Regular physical activity is recommended to promote and maintain health and to prevent the development of cardiovascular risk factors and related chronic diseases. Low-resistance exercise such as yoga is very beneficial for mental clarity, as well as helping with breathing, posture and stretching. The effects of sitting can be partially negated by small amounts of moving around throughout the day. Try to stand up and walk around your office every hour; make a cup of tea or take the stairs to use the restroom.
6 Tips to Get Moving
1. It’s not always realistic to take a break, but you can stand up while making phone calls.
2. Accumulate two hours of standing and/or light activity daily during working hours, eventually progressing to four.
3. Break up seated work with standing work, regularly.
4. Take hourly mini breaks; move at least once per hour throughout the day. Moving just two or three minutes each hour can get blood moving through your body.
5. Get co-workers together to go on works.
6. Designate a standing task. Pick a task that you can do while standing and make it your get up cue, such as talking on the phone, checking email or reviewing documents. If possible, invest in standing desk equipment or a mini stepper you can keep under your desk.
Hamilton MT, Healy GN, Dunstan DW, Zderic TW, Owen N. Too little exercise and too much sitting: inactivity physiology and the need for new recommendations on sedentary behavior. Curr Cardiovasc Risk Rep 2008;2(4):292–8 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23953353