In general, we are much more sedentary than we used to be. We walk less than we used to, and if we have the option, will take a car instead. Many of us have desk-based jobs and sit for long periods of time throughout the day. Additionally, with the introduction of the internet, we don’t even have to go out to our shopping anymore. All in all, we are moving a lot less than we used to, and unfortunately, this comes at a cost to our health.
According to some reports prolonged sitting is linked to 35 chronic health diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, heart disease and depression (Levine, 2015). With prolonged sitting being associated with so many health problems it’s not surprising that a study on 8,000 adults conducted at Columbia University also found it increases the risk of dying earlier (Diaz et al., 2017). As the evidence suggest there are some very good reasons to add in some more activity to your day!
What happens to our bodies when we sit for long periods? Firstly, it lowers our metabolism, which means we are burning less calories, therefore increasing the risk of putting on weight. It is reported that our energy expenditure doubles within minutes of standing or walking compared to sitting (Levine, 2015). It can also make us more insulin resistant leading to higher levels of blood glucose a risk factor for diabetes (Hamburg et al., 2007) and it also reduces basal blood flow a risk for cardiovascular disease (Dempsey et al., 2018). It can also lead to Muscular tightness, lower bone density and reduced muscle strength.
Are certain types of sitting worse than others and how long should we sit for? Simply sitting watching TV has been reported to be worse than sitting at work, which may be due to being even more sedentary when watching TV compared to sitting at work (Dempsey et al., 2018). This type of sitting is related to a poorer cardiometabolic profile. Interestingly, sitting in a slouch position has been reported to be better for your spine than sitting upright as it can increase disc height (Pape et al., 2018). So, although sitting for long periods can lead to developing back pain, it may not be related to a structural problem, more to do with your metabolism.
It’s been argued that people who sit for less than 30 minutes throughout their day reduced the risk of early death by 55% compared to people who sit for longer periods of 60-90 minutes at a time (Diaz et al., 2017) and this may seem obvious but walking breaks appear to better for our health than just standing alone. Older adults who walking for 5 minutes every half an hour had lower levels of insulin and glucose after eating a meal compared to those that just stood for 5 minutes (Yates et al., 2018).Going for a walk outside exposes us to sunlight increasing our vitamin D levels, which can also improve our mood. Getting away from the computer for a while can also help us to switch off and reduce stress.
Let’s face it, ever changing workplaces driven predominantly by technology has led us to live in a world in where movement is limited, fixing us to one position day in day out, but if we recognise these limitations now, making some small changes could have a big impact on our health in the long term.
Here is some advice about activity and tips to reduce the amount of time that you sit for:
- Take a break from sitting at least every 30 minutes, ideally a light walk, but at least standing is better than sitting
- Don’t just rely on exercise, you still need to take regular breaks throughout the day
- Park a little further away from work to make you walk a little more than usual.
- Take phone calls standing up
- Use a sit to stand desk
- Set an alarm or use an app such as http://www.workrave.org/, which will remind you to have a break regularly.
- Go outside at lunchtime and take a walk
- Take a walk around the office or take a longer route to make a cup of tea
Diaz KM, Howard VJ, Hutto B, et al (2017). Patterns of Sedentary Behavior and Mortality in U.S. Middle-Aged and Older Adults: A National Cohort Study. Ann Intern Med. [Epub ahead of print 12 September 2017]167:465–475. doi: 10.7326/M17-0212.
Hamburg NM, McMackin CJ, Huang AL, Shenouda SM, Widlansky ME, Schulz E, Gokce N, Ruderman NB, Keaney JF Jr, Vita JA (2007) Physical inactivity rapidly induces insulin resistance and microvascular dysfunction in healthy volunteers. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. Dec;27(12):2650-6.
Levine, J.A. (2015) Sick of Sitting. Diabetologia, 58: 1751-1758.
John L. Pape, Jean-Michel Brismée, Phillip S. Sizer, Omer C. Matthijs, Kevin L. Browne, Birendra M. Dewan, Stéphane Sobczak (2018) Increased spinal height using propped slouched sitting postures: Innovative ways to rehydrate intervertebral discs, Applied Ergonomics,Volume 66: 9-17.
Yates T, Edwardson CL, Celis-Morales C, Biddle SJH, Bodicoat D, Davies MJ, Esliger D, Henson J, Kazi A, Khunti K, Sattar N, Sinclair A, Rowlands A, Velayudhan L, Zaccardi F, Gill JMR. (2018) Metabolic effects of breaking prolonged sitting with standing or light walking in older South Asians and White Europeans: a randomized acute study. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. Nov 7