The hidden and obvious dangers of sitting too long

Uninterrupted sitting can cause irreversible damage and this applies to you even if you work-out regularly

Man sitting in an ergonomic chair and working

Have you ever counted the number of hours you sit in a day? You would be surprised to know that an adult spends on an average 9.7 hours/day sitting and the number can go up to 15 for office workers. This trend of sedentary lifestyle in the digital age has become a global threat and may add to an already increased burden of non-communicable diseases. Research now suggests that sitting for too long is bad for your health, regardless of how much you exercise.

In 2010, the American Cancer Society released a report in the American Journal of Epidemiology stating that men who sat for six hours or more a day in their leisure time had an overall death rate that was nearly 20 per cent higher than men who sat for three hours or less in the 14-year follow-up period. And women who sat for more than six hours a day had a death rate that was almost 40 per cent higher. Similar results were published in Archives of Internal Medicine stating that people who sit for long periods are at more risk of dying early.

That’s why many wellness oriented companies now have standing desks for employees—i.e. employees do not sit for working on desktop but they are provided with special desks which allow to them carry out their work while standing. Many people alternate between standing and sitting. There is also a trend of using a treadmill desk—wherein you walk while you work!

What are the health hazards of sitting?

  • When we sit for a long duration, our leg muscles become slack and don’t contract effectively to pump blood to the heart. This leads to pooling of blood in the legs which, in turn, reduces the ability of the blood vessels to expand. Problems range from swollen ankles and varicose veins to dangerous blood clots called deep vein thrombosis [DVT].
  • This sluggish blood flow also leads to deposition of fat in blood vessels, clogging them which further limits the oxygen and nutrient supply to the brain slowing down the brain function.
  • Chronic sitters use their hip muscles to a lesser extent, which is a reason for decreased hip stability commonly causing fall in the elderly population.
  • If most of your sitting happens at your workstation, craning your neck forward toward a keyboard or tilting your head to cradle a phone while typing can strain the cervical vertebrae and lead to permanent imbalances giving rise to variety of conditions ranging from muscular pain to spondylosis.
  • It is a well-known fact that prolonged sitting leads to permanent postural defects and spinal injuries.
  • When you sit, your upper-body weight rests entirely on the sitting bones instead of being distributed along the spine leading to pain in tail bone region.
  • Lack of inactivity is one of the reasons for increasing incidence of osteoporosis.
  • People who sit more are at greater risk for herniated lumbar disc [slipped disc].

Contrary to prolonged sitting, standing causes cellular changes that improve muscular and metabolic function of the body. When we walk or move about, soft discs between the vertebrae expand and contract like sponges, soaking up fresh blood and nutrients. But when we sit for an extended period, these discs are squashed unevenly leading to spinal problems.

Overall, prolonged sitting causes

  • About a 125 per cent increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain [angina] or heart attack
  • 112 per cent increase in the risk of diabetes
  • 147 per cent increase in cardiovascular events
  • 90 per cent increase in death caused by cardiovascular events
  • 49 per cent increase in death from any cause
  • Prolonged sitting disrupts the metabolic functions slowing them down by 90 per cent after only 30 minutes of sitting, raising plasma triglycerides, cholesterol and blood sugar. And after two hours, good cholesterol drops by 20 per cent. Sitting for long has been linked to high blood pressure. It substantially increases growth factors that lead to cancer especially colon cancer, endometrial cancer and breast cancer.
  • Researches have suggested that sitting for long hours impact mental wellbeing of workers, increasing the incidence of reduced social skills, anxiety and depression.

How do I know if I am sitting too much?

If you’ve been sitting for an hour at a stretch, you’ve been sitting for too long. We should all be up at least 10 minutes out of every hour.

People who don’t exercise can be healthier even if all they do is reduce the amount of time they sit. In fact, if you go to the gym regularly or walk for 30 – 45 minutes a day, but sit down the rest of the time, you are still leading a “sedentary lifestyle”.

Recent research even showed that just three hours of sitting was sufficient to cause damage to blood vessels, but when the sitting time was interrupted by a gentle 10-minute cycling session, no decline in vascular function was recorded.

How can I reduce my sitting time?

At home:

  • Take the stairs instead of using the lift
  • Make sure you get up and walk around after every 30min of sitting
  • Walk 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day
  • Swap some TV time for more active tasks or hobbies
  • Avoiding sitting whenever possible.

At work:

  • Have alternate breaks of sitting and standing at work
  • Break up periods of sitting or standing by doing simple exercises at your desk
  • To work standing, raise the level of laptop by placing it over a stand, box or books
  • Stand or walk around while on the phone
  • Take a walk break every time you take a coffee or tea break
  • Have standing meetings
  • Avoid driving continuously for more than 50 minutes; take a short break of 2 – 3 minutes in between
  • You may consider using standing workstations.

Special advice for parents

As children are spending less time doing physical activities and more time watching TV or playing video games, parents must establish healthy habits during the early years in order to protect them from future health imbalances.

  • Lead by example by reducing their TV time and other sitting-based tasks
  • Keep a limit on TV/screen time
  • Make bedrooms a TV- and computer-free zone
  • Encourage participation in house chores and outdoor games
  • Choose gifts such that encourage physical activities
  • Reduce time spent in infant carriers, car seats or high chairs

Wish you all healthy spine and joints!

A version of this article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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