How much time do you spend sitting? If you are like most Americans, it’s probably in the range of 9.3 hours a day1. Add to that an average of 7.7 hours of sleep and about 70% of our day is completely sedentary.
Humans are not meant to be sedentary creatures, but modern technology including TVs, computers, and cars have created an artificial environment for people where they find themselves sitting down far longer than standing up—this has serious consequences for our weight, our posture, and ultimately our lifespan.
Research is demonstrating now more than ever that our bodies are designed to move. The Canadian government has even warned workers in sedentary jobs such as in call centers, or people who work on computers all day, that many medical conditions are negatively related to the inactivity caused by prolonged sitting.
Why Is Sitting So Bad?
Sitting affects us so negatively that the many ways in which it impacts our body are increasingly being discovered by science.
Because you are not using any large muscle groups when you sit down, almost immediately your metabolism slows. This lack of muscular movement has implications for our body’s internal processes. The slower rate of metabolism caused by lack of muscular movement can cause an increase in your blood sugar levels, and cause a 90% decrease in the amount of stored fat that is used as fuel in your body. Over time, reduced physical activity can contribute to an overall state of sluggishness and accelerated aging.
Calorie consumption is decreased and peak performance is reduced, yet we still take in calories by consuming food and drinks. The effects of lack of movement impact digestion, our hormones, our heart, blood, liver and more. Basically all of the body’s processes become systemically more sluggish.
A sedentary lifestyle can lead to insulin resistance, which can contribute to obesity and which is the precursor to type 2 diabetes. More critically, research is showing that just sitting around can lead to an increased risk of cancer later in life.
Some Surprising Study Results
One study in Copenhagen2 found that healthy individuals who were forced to reduce their daily steps from 6,000 - 10,000 steps daily, down to just 2,000 steps, had a 60% increase of insulin in their blood in just two weeks. They also gained an average of 7% abdominal fat. These changes occurred surprisingly quickly—within two weeks’ time of increased sitting. Our bodies just aren’t designed to sit for long periods without movement.
A University of South Carolina study3 showed that adult men were substantially more likely to die from heart disease the more time they spent sitting in their car, at their desk, or in front of a TV. Specifically, men who reported more than 23 hours a week of sedentary activity resulted in a 64 percent increased risk of dying from heart disease than those who reported 11 hours a week or less. Simply standing up, taking a few steps, marching in place or just wiggling a bit can lower blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides, and waist size.
The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a study4 which found that prolonged bouts of sitting are strongly associated with obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, abnormal metabolism, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and an increased risk of early death. What’s important about this British study is that it showed even if you exercise daily, these risks do not decrease. The research demonstrated that even if you get up and exercise for an hour each morning, and then you go to work and sit at a desk all day and then come home and sit in front of the TV for another 3 hours, you have just as much at risk for developing a debilitating condition as someone who doesn’t exercise at all.
Another study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute claims that sitting and sedentary behavior increases the risk of various cancers by up to 66%5. Particularly with colon and endometrial cancer, the key factor that raised the risk was the total amount of time spent sitting on a daily basis. The more hours a person spends sitting, the higher the risk they have for cancer—and no amount of exercise changes that correlation.
The fundamental point in many of these studies is that the detrimental effects of sitting too much cannot be counteracted by daily strenuous exercise. What we need to do is to redesign our daily routine, so that it is punctuated with regular intervals of standing, walking, and squatting, as well as other movement and stretching breaks throughout the day.
Further supporting this fact, a 2008 study6 showed that people who regularly break up time spent sitting with even small movements had healthier waist circumference, body mass index (BMI), and triglycerides than people who didn't take breaks during long periods of sitting.
More Reasons Why Sitting Can Be Dangerous
If these significant reasons aren’t enough, sitting is bad news for your back. Anyone who works at a desk knows that long days spent sitting are not supportive of a healthy back. Some people may experience only mild stiffness or soreness, while others experience intolerable levels of pain due to the spinal compression and bad posture. Our back muscles literally have to contract and compensate in unnatural ways to counteract the pressure that sitting causes. The longer we sit, the more tension can build up.
If you are combining a sedentary lifestyle along with an unhealthy diet, the effects are exacerbated. Too many sugary drinks and snacks, instead of spring water or healthy food items can give rise to diabetes. The lack of movement prevents conversion of the sugar to glucose for feeding the muscle tissues and instead it becomes stored instead of being used to fuel activity.
How much exercise is enough to counteract the effects of a day in the office? It’s more than you think. If you already work out 5 times a week, you still need to increase your movement throughout the day.
How Can We Fix This Problem?
To combat this problem, the first step is to learn how to sit ergonomically. If you learn to dynamically sit on the pelvic bones, rather than leaning back into the chair, your muscles will stay more active and your body weight will be more centered through your spine and hips.
To do this, sit in the central part of the chair and only lean back until you feel your body weight running vertically down your spine to your pelvic bones. The balance of your body weight is now centered over on your sitz bones. It means that you can move your arms and legs very easily. As you are sitting, you can lean and shift your weight from one side to the other. This is important because it helps to move oxygen around the tissues where the blood is compressed so that it can be replenished.
Keep your knees and hips at a 90 degree angle, like the letter “h”. A wider angle at your hips places too much pressure on the spine and a more narrow angle cuts off blood supply to your legs. If your chair is too tall to maintain this configuration, place a box under your feet. If your chair is too small, sit on a pillow to raise your height. Maintaining healthy ergonomics will go a long way to avoiding physical pain down the road.
Also, it’s a good idea to explore alternative work station designs such as using a standing desk or a medicine ball chair. An exercise ball helps strengthen the core while improving balance and flexibility. It also requires more energy, so it burns a few calories. Be aware of your posture throughout the day. Poor posture only worsens as you get older and becomes more difficult to correct the longer it has been held.
For optimal health, all of these movement activities need to be performed in addition to a strenuous daily workout—not instead of it.
Here are some tips for adding more activity into your daily routine:
- Schedule 10-minute activity breaks throughout the day.
- Take 5 minutes out of every hour to stand up and stretch.
- Bounce! Even 5 minutes on a personal rebounder like the Cellerciser can bring health to ever cell of your body!
- Drink more spring water (add some flavor and herbs with Jing Soda herbal concentrates) so you can take more bathroom breaks and stretch your muscles.
- Choose the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Find the furthest parking space from your destination so you still have to walk to get there. (Remember, walking burns 3-5 times the number of calories that sitting does!)
- Place your printer a short distance away from your computer so you have to get up and walk to it rather than having it next to your computer.
Physical activity has been shown to benefit every organ in the body. If there’s one easy anti-aging lifestyle change you can make, it would be to increase your physical activity throughout the day.