Why Sitting Is The New Smoking

We drive to work, spend hours at our office desk and, at the end of the day, drive home. Then it’s time to sit on the couch, binging on TV series or browsing the Internet on our tablets to do some shopping. And all of it’s done on our derrières.

In fact, statistics show some of us sit, on average, for a staggering 10 hours a day. The sad truth about sitting for so long? It could be killing us.

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Why sitting is so bad

Research links sitting for long periods with a host of health problems. As well as leaving you at risk of poor posture and flexibility, lower-back and joint pain, it’s also associated with everything from high blood pressure to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and even an increased risk of cancer.

A review of a 2011 study on sedentary behaviour by UK researchers from Loughborough and Leicester universities found that there was a 90% increase in death from cardiovascular events for those who were sedentary for longer, compared with those who spent less time sitting.

“Being crammed into a chair all day long is as unnatural as eating all day long,” says Dr James Levine, author of Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About it (Palgrave Macmillan).

“Humans weren’t designed to sit. For thousands of years, we hunted for and grew food; we spent most of our lives upright and only sat down in short batches for a break. Now, however, we’ve converted from an ancient world of movers to a modern world of chair sloths. Sitters die sooner – for every hour you sit, two hours of your life walk away.”

No wonder sitting has been dubbed ‘the new smoking’. And though you may think you’re pretty fit, you can’t get away scot-free with sitting for hours on end.

But I go to gym everyday….

Even if you do the recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise through the week (be it a run, a gym session, or a brisk walk in the park), if you spend long periods of every day pretty much bottom-bound, you’re still classed as ‘sedentary’ and are at risk of the health outcomes.

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Could standing be the solution?

In an attempt to help combat all of the potential health problems facing office workers hunched at their desks all day, some forward-thinking companies have installed adjustable ‘standing’ desks that allow users to switch from working sitting down to standing up.

But while a recent pilot study by the University of Sydney found that workers who use sit-stand desks are more energised, and research by Dr Levine has shown that standing office workers burn more kilojoules than those sitting, the simple act of standing won’t solve all the health problems of our ‘still’ lifestyle, says Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and author of Don’t Just Sit There (Lotus Publishing).

Repetition is the problem

The actual sitting down (or standing) itself isn’t really the problem, says Katy. “If you stand there all day in one position, you’ll be no better off than you were before… except you’ll be more tired, stiff and sore,” she says.

“What’s the point of standing in a way that crushes your body in the same manner that sitting does?” “It’s the repetitive use of a single position that makes us ill,” she explains.

“Muscles will adapt to repetitive positioning by altering their cellular make-up, which subsequently leads to less range of motion in the joints.” This joint and muscle ‘stiffness’ can lead to the rigidity of the arterial walls within these muscles. The solution? Moving more, says Katy.

How to take movement breaks

To help combat the risks of sitting, experts recommend that we break up long periods of sitting with short bouts of physical activity every 30 minutes. When sitting for long periods, the body essentially ‘shuts down’ – so any movements will, in theory, help wake it up, give your bodily functions a boost, and engage your muscles, joints and bones.

When sitting for long periods, the body essentially ‘shuts down’ – so any movements will, in theory, help wake it up, give your bodily functions a boost, and engage your muscles, joints and bones.

Tips to move more: 

  • Set a timer at your desk to remind you to get up for a one- to two-minute walk every half an hour.
  • Get off the couch during TV ad breaks and stand or walk around when you take a phone call. Why not try a Fitbit or similar tech that monitors movements and prompts you to move when it senses you’re too inactive?
  • Stretching out of still positions is also important to keep joints lithe and muscles lengthened, says massage and postural expert Jennifer Spies. “After being hunched forward at your PC, get up and open up your chest by doing backstroke motions with your arms, for example,” she says.
  • If you’re stuck seated in the car, you can still move. Do neck rolls, shoulder shrugs, march your legs on the spot to tone them and mobilise a stiff back.

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 Try this energising exercise from physiotherapist and Pilates instructor Julia Jackson:

Sit tall and picture your spine as a long spring that’s gently being pulled up from the crown of your head to the ceiling and from your tailbone down to the floor – count to 10 as your body lengthens. Try to relax into this position, breathing easily as your feet support you.

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