The Effects of Sitting and What To Do About It
The Realities of Sitting
Computer workstation ergonomics cannot be discussed without also discussing sitting and the adverse health effects it has on us. With the advances in technology over the past two decades, we are now sitting more than ever before. On average, we spend about 9.3 hours a day sitting, while only 7.7 hours sleeping. Just think about your daily routine and how much time you spend sitting. If you’re like most people that have an office job, after you get up in the morning, you sit down to have breakfast, you sit down in the car on your commute to work, you sit all day at work including your lunch break, you sit on your drive home from work, you sit to eat dinner, and then you likely sit on the couch to watch television, read, or surf the internet. Some of you may get an hour of exercise at some point in your day, but it is easy to see that most of your day is spent sitting. Recent research has shown that this type of sedentary lifestyle is detrimental to your health, even if you exercise or live an “active lifestyle.”
Why is Sitting a Problem?
Your body is designed to move, so as soon as you sit down, your body shuts down at a metabolic level. When your muscles are immobile and not contracting, especially certain leg muscles, circulation slows down and the neuroelectrical activity in the muscles ceases, causing enzyme activity to drop by 90%. One of these enzymes, lipoprotein lipase, is responsible for breaking down fat to use as energy, and for shifting cholesterol from the bad kind (LDL) to the healthy kind (HDL). Within 2 hours of sitting, your good cholesterol (HDL) drops by 20%. In other words, the longer you sit, the more weight you gain. According to one study, within 8 months of starting sedentary office work, people gain 16 pounds on average. Furthermore, within 24 hours of being sedentary, insulin effectiveness drops by 24%, while your circulating insulin increases, drastically increasing your risk of developing Type II diabetes.
Over a lifetime of sitting, these adverse health effects add up and shorten life expectancy. One study that followed the health of 123,000 Americans between 1992 and 2006, showed that men in the study that spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had on overall death rate about 20 percent higher than men who sat for less than six hours per day. For women in the study who sat for more than six hours per day, the death rate was about 40 percent higher. Another study published in the journal Circulation that looked at nearly 9,000 Australians and found that for each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent. Other factors like age, sex, education, smoking, hypertension, waist circumference, body-mass index, and whether the person exercised or not did not significantly change the associations between hours spent watching television and all-cause mortality. Furthermore, a study published in the journal Lancetshowed strong evidence that physical inactivity is directly linked to 6 percent of the burden of heart disease, 7 percent of Type 2 diabetes, and 10 percent for breast or colon cancer.
Sitting also wreaks havoc on the body’s muscles and joints. Your spine was not meant to stay in a seated position for long periods. The spine is slightly curved to resemble a slight S-shape. The curves help the spine distribute mechanical stress from body movement and gravity. When you sit, the lower back curve collapses, turning the spine’s natural S-shape into a C. You’re left to bear all of your weight through the pelvis and spine, unlike standing when you’re distributing weight through your hips, knees, and ankles. While using proper ergonomics and a chair with good lumbar support will help you maintain your spine’s natural curves, sitting still puts the highest pressure on your lumbar discs, even when using perfect sitting posture. Furthermore, your back muscles become overworked trying to maintain your posture as you’re no longer distributing your weight through your legs. The back muscles, ligaments, tendons, and disc cartilage become strained and will eventually weaken, which can cause many spinal problems.
Muscles also tend to adapt to whatever position they are in most. So if you sit in the same position for long hours at work each day, you will slowly reset your natural posture and your muscles will begin to resize themselves to accommodate your sitting posture. Over time, your body becomes more adept to sitting in a chair. The problem is that it makes you less adept at standing, walking, and running. Eventually, you might start to experience symptoms like neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, headaches, hip pain, and/or tingling numbness in your extremities.
Sitting Is the Real Issue
As you’re reading this, you might say to yourself: “well I exercise regularly, so that should counter all of this.” Conventional wisdom has always been that if you watch your diet and exercise a few times a week, you would offset all of the time you spend sitting or being sedentary. Unfortunately, an increasing body of research on inactivity is showing that exercise alone will not undo the harmful effects associated with sitting. Sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little and they have independent effects on the body. Meaning that the amount of time you exercise and the amount of time you spend sitting are completely separate factors for things like heart disease and diabetes. Sitting in an office chair for 8 hours a day is bad for your health whether you go home and sit on the couch or go to the gym after work. Research has shown that we are exercising as much as we were 30 years ago.
A 2006 University of Minnesota study found that from 1980 to 2000, the percentage of people who reported exercising regularly remained the same while the amount of time people spent sitting, increased by 8 percent. Clearly, what has changed is that we are now living more sedentary lives. A study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that men who spent more than 23 hours per week watching television or sitting in their cars had a 64 percent greater chance of dying from heart disease than men who sat for 11 hours per week or less. What was surprising in the study was that many of the men who sat for long hours and developed heart disease also regularly exercised and reported living active lifestyles.
The Solution to Sitting
So the cure for too much sitting is not more exercise, though exercise is good for you of course. It’s just that you can never exercise enough to counteract the detrimental effects of hours upon hours of sitting. Just like smoking is bad for you, even if you get lots of exercises, you cannot counter the effects of a pack-a-day smoking habit by jogging. There’s a difference between official exercise activity like running, biking, or lifting weights, and so-called non-exercise activity, like walking to your car, mowing your lawn, mopping, cooking, or simply standing.
Decades ago, our work and recreational activities required us to stand up more and use the body’s muscles. In today’s world of cars, desk jobs, HD televisions, computers, and smartphones, we’ve reduced our non-exercise activities and replaced them with sitting. So what has been shown to make a difference in decreasing the adverse health effects of sitting is increasing our non-exercise activity. In a 2007 report, University of Missouri scientists said that people with the highest level of non-exercise activity (but little to no actual “exercise”) burned significantly more calories a week than those who ran 35 miles a week but accumulated only a moderate amount of non-exercise activity. In other words, you need to take every opportunity you have, throughout the day, to get out of your chair and add small amounts of non-exercise activity into your daily routine. It can be simply standing. We expend three times as much energy standing (15 calories per hour) as we do sitting (5 calories per hour).
A few simple suggestions you can do at work and at home:
● Take active micro-breaks. (Much more on this later)
● Stand while talking on the phone or during a conference call
● Schedule walking meetings when possible
● Cut back on phone calls and emails to coworkers. When you need to speak to a coworker, walk to his/her workspace. Besides getting you out of your chair, this face-to-face communication style has been shown to improve relationships
● Take the stairs instead of the elevator
● Walk or ride your bike to work. If you do drive, park your car farther away (half a mile for example) from your office
● Consider getting a standing desk and change your working position throughout the day
● At home, stand up and walk around every time a commercial comes on the TV
● Catch up with your spouse or other family members or friends by talking with them while you stroll around the neighborhood together