How much do you sit during the day? It doesn’t seem like much, but once we really examine how much of our time is spent sitting, it can be pretty shocking. We sit down to eat breakfast, sit in the car on the way to work, sit at our desk at work, sit at lunch, sit at meetings, sit on the drive home, sit during dinner and sit while watching TV in the evening. Even if you add in an hour workout before or after work, the majority of the day is sedentary. While working out is of course beneficial for our health, it can’t outweigh the dangers of sitting too much. In fact, a January 2015 review in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that prolonged sedentary time, no matter how much you work out, caused health problems.
Excessive sitting or a sedentary lifestyle has become the norm in today’s culture. According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is the 4th leading risk factor for death among adults around the world. Sitting for long periods of time causes physiologic changes in our bodies that can’t be undone with working out a few times per week. A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to increased risk for heart disease, cancer and poor bone density. Sitting for 8 to 12 hours per day increases the risk of type 2 diabetes by a whopping 90 percent!
Fortunately, taking breaks from sitting, even just to stand up and stretch for a minute can help offset these risks.
We Sit Too Much
It is clear that our country sits too much. According to the Huffington Post, the average American adult is sedentary for 60 percent of waking hours and sits for over 6 hours per day.
The Mayo Clinic recently reported on a study in which the researchers studied people who sit in front of the television or any screen for less than 2 hours per day compared with those who spend 4 hours or more sitting. Those sitting for more than 4 hours had a 50 percent greater chance of death (no matter the cause) than the first group! They also had a 125 percent increased risk of heart disease. These distinctions hold true no matter how much you exercise. It is even possible that extreme exercisers like marathon runners are even more likely to be sedentary when they are not working out. This may be due to the misguided belief that their intense workout schedule protects them from the health risks of sitting too much.
The Dangers of Sitting
Our bodies are meant to move. Sitting for extended periods negatively affects almost every body system, starting with our muscles. When sitting at a computer or desk, we naturally lean forward towards the screen, straining our necks. Over time, this can cause a chronically sore neck, shoulders and back. Chronic back pain is one of the most common ailments in our country, and moving more may be just what the doctor ordered. Our spine is made up of bones (vertebrae) and soft discs. When we move, the discs in between our vertebrae have a chance to expand and contract, absorbing fresh blood. When we sit for extended periods of time, the discs can’t move and actually harden over time.
It is not just our back muscles that suffer from sitting all day. Because our core muscles don’t need to do any work to hold up the torso when sitting, they become weaker and weaker. This leads to our backs having to compensate, causing tight and sore muscles. This can even lead to an overarching of the low back called hyperlordosis. In addition to weak abs, sitting causes weak glutes. Because the glutes are not activated when we sit, they tend to become soft and weak, making other muscles compensate when we walk, run or even stand. People who sit most of the day also tend to have extremely tight hips. Because they rarely stretch their hip flexors, these muscles become very tight and cause imbalance. The Washington Post reported that tight hips are a leading cause of falls in the elderly.
Sitting for long periods of time affects our legs as well. When we sit, blood pools in our legs, causing swelling and even varicose veins. When we walk, we force old blood to be pumped back to the heart. However, if the blood is allowed to sit for long periods of time, dangerous blood clots could form. These are not only dangerous in the legs, but can actually travel to the brain causing a stroke or heart causing a heart attack. Sitting also greatly affects our bones. Exercise actually causes tiny tears in the bones and muscles. These tiny tears regrow stronger than before, creating denser, stronger bones. When we don’t move, our body does not have the opportunity to naturally increase bone density. This can lead to osteoporosis.
Not surprisingly, sitting for most of the day has been linked to heart disease and diabetes. The longer we sit, the fewer calories our bodies burn. Because we’re not using our muscles, our heart does not have to pump as hard or fast, allowing fatty acids to build up and more easily clog the heart. In fact, people who are very sedentary or sit most of the day are twice as likely to have heart disease as those who are active throughout the day.
Excessive sitting causes both blood pressure to increase and the diameter of blood vessels to decrease. This puts stress on the heart, as it has to work harder to force blood through a smaller space.
Another organ affected by a sedentary lifestyle in the pancreas. The pancreas is responsible for producing insulin, the hormone that allows our bodies to use glucose for energy, rather than having it stored as fat in the body. However, when our cells are not moving, they are less responsive to insulin. Our body then thinks it does not have enough insulin and makes more and more. This imbalance can lead to diabetes. The Washington Post also reported that our cells don’t respond appropriately to insulin after just 1 day of sitting. This increased insulin may contribute to the increased risk of certain types of cancer in sedentary people. Breast, endometrial and colon cancers are all more common in those with sedentary lifestyles.
Sitting for too long even affects our brains. When we move our muscles, our heart pumps fresh, oxygenated blood to the brain. This new blood then triggers our brains to release chemicals that enhance both concentration and mood. Sitting for an extended period of time slows down all of our body’s functions, including brain function. According to a Harvard University blog post, excessive sitting has even been linked with an increased risk for dementia.
Unfortunately even standing too long has health risks and is linked to varicose veins, back pain and carotid artery disease. The bottom line is that our muscles need movement, and any position kept for too long is never good.
Get Up and Move
You don’t have to give up your office job in order to be more active throughout the day. If you usually sit at a desk during the day, ask your manager if an alternative desk is an option. To combat these health risks from sitting, some companies offer standing or treadmill desks. One very economical choice is a fitdesk, which is a stationary bike with a desk attachment. Many employers are starting to provide standing desks because of their benefits, such as lower healthcare costs and more productive employees. Companies are also providing Yoga spaces and encouraging employees to utilize them. Some companies are even providing their employees with Yoga mats to make it even more convenient.
If an alternative desk is not an option, make sure to plan plenty of standing and walking breaks throughout the day. Even if you don’t have a standing desk, you could stand to use the phone or to text. Instead of calling or emailing a coworker, walk over to his or her desk to sneak in some extra activity. At least every hour, stand up for a few minutes and walk a lap around the office. This may sound like a lot of breaks, but walking during the day is linked to more productive employees, so it truly is worth it. To take this one step further, a recent Wall Street Journal article recommended that for every half hour of computer work, an employee should sit for 20 minutes, stand for 8 and then walk for 2 minutes.
Try setting your phone alarm to remind you to take a standing or walking break. There are even apps to help with this such as Stand Up! and StandApp. A NASA study found that standing up for 2 minutes 16 times during the work day improved muscular and bone health. In addition, try standing up in meetings.
This may feel awkward at first, but if you explain that you are trying to avoid the risks that come with sitting too much, others may join you. Even better, if you are meeting with only 1 or 2 others, consider going for a walk together instead of sitting in a meeting room. Finally, walking or biking to work can be a great way to increase activity and disconnect from work before returning home. If you live too far to make this work, consider driving part of the way and walking the rest.
At home, try to sneak in exercise anywhere you can. When watching television, rather than fast-forwarding through commercials, use that time as a walking or standing break. As a rule of thumb, the more activity, the better. Even avid exercisers can benefit from increasing moderate activity during the day.