You can’t undo the negative health effects from sitting, even if you go to the gym for an hour daily.
Some research shows that regardless of how much physical activity someone gets, if they sit too long, they increase the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer.
According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, all around the world people spend significant time sitting down, which they estimate contributes to 433,000 deaths related to inactivity. Another study from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center found that people who sit for most of the day are 54% more likely to die from heart attacks. Reducing sitting to less than three hours daily could result in a 2.3% decline in all-cause mortality. The American Heart Association issued a report that shows that in the U.S., adults are sedentary for about six to eight hours daily. But it’s even worse for older adults — over 60, and the report shows sitting for between 8.5 to 9.6 hours a day. Sedentary lifestyles are associated with increased impaired insulin sensitivity (linked to diabetes) and a higher risk of death from any cause.
The “why” is under investigation. Some research shows that the act of sitting seems to shut of the circulation of lipase, an enzyme needed for fat digestion — muscles burn less fat and blood flows more sluggishly during a long sit. When your body is sedentary for too long, you utilize blood glucose less efficiently. Sitting for hours on end negatively impacts mobility and flexibility — you actually lose muscle mass, and possibly bone density.
When you sit in front of the computer for hours on end you can incur serious physical issues, including orthopedic problems. Gradual development of small injuries or stresses to the body are referred to as Cumulative Trauma Disorders. Chronic sitters often develop rigid hip flexor muscles and decreased mobility. People who sit more are at increased risk for herniated lumbar disks. Repetitive stress injuries are common, and can cause pain and discomfort in the back, shoulders, neck, and wrists, not to mention headaches and eyestrain.
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I think these studies confirm what we already know, to a large extent. We know that the key to better health is staying active daily, and eating a plant-based, whole-foods diet. And knowing that sitting too much contributes to significant health risks is something to think about. As I’m typing today, I’m standing. Which can really help. Standing helps you burn more calories and use more muscles. Standing helps distribute the stress on your neck and back, and if you stand and fidget, all the better since small movements and breaks help prevent problems and can even help you think more creatively (Hemingway, Thomas
Wolfe, Vladimir Nabokov and Lewis Carroll are just a few who worked standing instead of sitting.)
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You don’t need a special desk or equipment to stand while working, (although it’s nice to have an adjustable desk.) I have a stack of books that I prop my computer on, and another stack for my mouse and keyboard. Bob Vila has some good ideas for constructing your own, including converting a bookcase shelf into a home office work surface — simple and low cost.
Researchers say that replacing sitting time with just standing or moderate physical activity is the ticket to better health. Remember, it’s not merely exercise that is correlated with better health…it’s accumulated activity. When you’re watching TV, stand up during commercials. Stand when you’re talking on the phone. Take the stairs whenever you can, both up and down. If you’re going to a high-rise, take the elevator up to two or three flights lower than your destination, and walk up the final flights. If you’re used to taking a cab, get off a few blocks before your destination. If you’re working in front of your computer, set your desktop alarm to go off every 20 minutes, and don’t ignore it.
And when the alarm goes off, take a stretch break! At least two minutes every 20-30 minutes at the computer, stop and stretch, and when you’re standing, just fidget … it helps keep the circulation moving. Do shoulder rolls, elevate one foot then the other, do some squats. You’ll lose the stiffness and headaches, and be more productive too. Keep a weighted object by your desk, like a 2-3 pound barbell or sandbag. Stand away from your desk and do some swings and deadlifts. I keep an exercise band by my desk and use it for some extra resistance stretching. Check out these ideas from VeryWell.com here.
Take stretch breaks! (From the University of New Hampshire Physical Wellness
Take a break periodically throughout the day and stretch. Stretching helps divide up repetitive activities, relieves tension and gives fatigued muscles a chance to recover. Here are some ideas for stretches you can do at your desk:
- Raise the tops of your shoulders towards your ears and hold for 5 seconds. Release. Repeat 5 times.
- Tilt your chin towards your neck and hold for 5 seconds. Release. Repeat 5 times.
- Turn your head towards your right shoulder. Hold for 5 seconds and release. Repeat on the other side. Repeat 5 times on each side.
- Clench your hands into a fist and hold for 5 seconds. Release, separating and fanning out your fingers until you feel a stretch. Hold for 5 seconds and release. Repeat the entire cycle 5 times.
American Journal of Preventive Medicine. All-cause mortality attributable to sitting time. http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(16)00048-9/abstract
Medscape.com. Too much sitting increases mortality risk despite exercise. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/838356
Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Sitting time and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19346988
University of New Hampshire: Office of Health Education and Promotion – Physical Wellness. Ergonomics. https://www.unh.edu/health-services/ohep/physical-wellness/ergonomics
Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally — a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Contact her at SusantheDietitian@gmail.com