From our homes to our workplaces, from our hobbies to our commutes, the world is becoming more comfortable and, as a side effect, we spend more of our time sitting than standing.
We’ve all heard the adage that sitting is the new smoking. Like the days of old when most people did smoke, sitting is something that everyone does too much of, that doesn’t seem too harmful but is slowly deteriorating our health. It might be too much to say that sitting is slowly killing us but an early death is a very real possibility if we don’t take precautions against a sedentary lifestyle.
A 2010 study showed that sitting for 23 hours per week increased the chance of heart disease by 64%. Another study reports that people who sit at work are 54% more likely to die of a heart attack. Sitting for 8 to 12 hours or more per day increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 90%. These are real and really scary statistics and the cause isn’t a mystery. Sitting slows your metabolism because large muscles (like those in your legs) aren’t being used and therefore not burning calories, and a high metabolism is crucial for losing weight and keeping it off.
This isn’t even mentioning the physical toll that prolonged periods of inactivity can have on your muscles. Muscles that aren’t used start to weaken, break down, and atrophy. This can mean an increased risk of injury, of course, but it can also negatively your day-to-day life. Everything from walking up stairs to chasing after a cab will become much more difficult because your muscles aren’t up to the task anymore.
The discs in your back can become distorted, affecting tendons and ligaments. Sitting hunched in a chair means that your abs and butt muscles aren’t being used. Slouching can also strain the neck, causing shoulder and back pain.
Unfortunately, exercise doesn’t necessarily counteract the negative effects of sitting all day; sitting all day outweighs the benefits of going to the gym for an hour after work. The solution to the problem is the same as the cause; consistency. You have to make movement a regular habit, just like sitting. That means that you have to maintain good posture and a routine of regularly getting up and walking and/or stretching.
For good posture, sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor and with lower back support. Keep your shoulders relaxed and your hands level with or below your elbows.
You can continually do some stretching while remaining seated but, every hour, take a break from sitting to stand, walk, or stretch even more. Go for a short walk outside or just walk around the room every 30 minutes. You could start a practice of standing while taking phone calls or having certain meetings.
It’s important to point out that this behaviour that we’ve developed is not always our fault. Our environments are designed to make us comfortable. Very few offices have standing desks. Most places where people get their morning coffee have drive-throughs, so why would we walk in? Most public transportation has adequate seating, so why would we stand? If you’re not tired during a long road trip, why bother stopping?
Some of these things won’t change so it’s up to us to make healthier choices. However, occupational therapists can audit and modify workspaces to make them as healthy as possible.
Consider this your reminder to get up and stretch. Right now.