How Sitting Is Harming Our Health
It’s hard to believe that something as innocent as sitting could be undoing the health of many people worldwide.
While it’s clear our biology is designed for sitting (we have padded rear ends and knees that bend), we were not meant to sit for hours and hours on end.
Sadly, in recent decades, as we’ve adapted to work that is less physically demanding, we sit more than we ever have in our history.
Some people sit for 10+ hours a day.
From sunup to sundown they’re locked to a desk chair (or some other kind of work chair) and then end up stuck in a chair or couch back at home because they’re so drained from work that they can’t do anything but sit.
All this sitting is doing some incredible damage to us.
Again, because we were not meant to sit, this sedentary life is turning us into people whose many important biological systems are suffering from impaired function.
Now, is sitting the biggest concern that I deal with? Does it keep me up at night and make me wring my hands in worry?
No, but I believe that being sedentary combined with other bad habits are some of the easiest things to work on when it comes to helping transform your health.
In this article I’m going to describe why being sedentary is so harmful and also give you simple and easy-to-follow directions that will be enough to reverse the damage sitting can do.
The best thing about what I’m going to tell you is you can apply many of these tips to your life, regardless of where you work, or how old you are (and how active you are). Read on to see how everything works.
Why Sitting Too Much Can Be Bad For You
I think that a lot of people in the modern medical world get tunnel vision when it comes to dealing with patient, or population-level problems.
What I mean by that is if a person visits their doctor for the onset of something like metabolic syndrome, most physicians' first inclination is not to provide an exhaustive analysis of how a person got to be that sick.
What I like to do is make a robust assessment of how someone lives before I get into possible treatments.
Believe it or not, when people come to me with issues relating to weight, and general health, many times what they’re dealing with can be attributed to sitting too much.
Ok, not sitting alone.
But, a lack of movement, and a propensity to be still for too long, generally indicates that a person’s body isn’t being well maintained, and because of that hormones, neurotransmitters, and more are being negatively affected.
A 2013 study indicated that those who are sedentary most of the day (meaning they didn’t move much for 6+ hours) had a higher incidence of early death.
And according to them, that was true even if they managed to exercise for 30 minutes a day (by the way, I’ll show another study that counters this exercise claim)
Based on nearly 3,900 men and women over age 60 in Stockholm, the study adds to evidence suggesting that just sitting around may be actively harmful, researchers say.
'We have known for 60 years that physical activity is important for the heart,’ said lead author Elin Ekblom-Bak… But, until recently, the research has mainly focused on exercise and has “forgotten” about the background activity that we do during daily life…
Whether someone exercises vigorously or not, it still usually only takes up a small fraction of the day. That leaves the rest of the time for either sitting still or engaging in non-exercise activities, like home repairs, lawn care, gardening, car maintenance, hunting, or fishing.
The participants were followed for the next 12.5 years. During that time nearly 500 people had a first-time heart attack or stroke, and nearly 400 people died from any cause.
People who had reported high levels of daily non-exercise activity were less likely to suffer a heart-related event and less likely to die than those who were the least active.
So, what does sitting (or being sedentary, actually do to the body?)
In reality, what’s happening is sitting doesn’t subject your body to stress, or load, things you vitally need to activate multiple signaling pathways in the body.
For instance, we need consistent movement so that our muscles will demand glucose for energy. If we don’t move, glucose can build up and we can become insulin resistant which can cause a host of problems.
And likewise, if we don’t move then our heart becomes frail and fragile, unable to handle intense stress or (even normal stress) which puts it in a compromised position.
Sitting has been linked to
- Increase risk of colon cancer
- Compromised cardiovascular function which may increase the risk of blood clots and other coronary issues.
- Pain and muscle imbalances as well as leading to muscle degeneration
- Heightened risk of breast cancer
And much more
It’s plain to see that movement is essential for flourishing and sitting too much works against that.
Now, onto the ways to combat the negative effects of sitting.
Here’s How to Make Too Much Sitting a Non-Issue
In the section above I referenced a study that said that sitting too much can’t even be overcome by 30 minutes of exercise.
And while that seems dramatic, in a way it makes sense.
However, that doesn’t mean a little bit of exercise won’t help.
In an article about the dangers of sitting, Fast Company wrote about how just a few minutes of exercise (11 to be accurate) was enough to help mitigate the risk of premature death.
They wrote ”A meta-analysis of nine studies tracking nearly 45,000 people, found that those who were most sedentary risked dying prematurely. But even when people sat as much as 8.5 hours a day, getting just 11 minutes of moderate exercise significantly cut that risk. Thirty to 40 minutes of exercise was even more helpful.”
I know every single person reading this can manage 11 minutes of exercise a day, and I’m sure most of you can do more than that.
And now, here’s the even better news. It’s incredibly easy to add 15-30 minutes of additional exercise to your day without extra effort.
1- Stand and Air Squat:
One of the best things you can do to combat the effects of sitting is to stand up frequently and do an air squat.
An air squat is a simple movement in which you squat down as if to sit down on a chair and then stand back up. Air squats engage some of your body’s largest muscle groups and can be done anywhere you can stand up. They’re safe and also extremely effective.
If you sit 8+ hours a day, once an hour you can stand up and do 60-120 seconds of air squats (in small sets) and easily increase your total exercise amounts.
Here’s a video on how to do an air squat.
Walking for 5 minutes an hour, every hour is another time-tested (and doctor-approved) exercise scheme that can help undo the effects of sitting.
Now, naturally, not all of you reading this are going to have the flexibility to take off that much time during a work day to get this in, nor are you required to do this from sunup to sundown.
However, if you can do this 4-6x a day it will add 20-30 total minutes of exercise to your day and it will be super-helpful at getting you in a place where you are neutralizing the effects of sitting.
Best of all it’s low impact and it can be done almost anywhere.
3 - Isometric Exercise
Another form of movement that you can do anywhere, and that can help with sitting damage is isometric exercises.
This kind of exercise is generally used by people who are rehabbing from an injury, as it is low intensity (but still strength promoting) and can be done without the risk of equipment causing injury.
Isometric exercises are exercises in which you either keep a body part stiff and contracted and push on it with another body part and actively resist the pushing appendage.
Or, it’s where you press against an immovable object with a body part in a controlled and sustained manner.
These kinds of exercises don’t engage the heart in a cardiovascular sense (not the same way the exercises above do), but they are good for building strength and activating growth pathways in the body…something that doesn’t happen when you are sedentary for long periods of time.
Here’s a video demonstrating how isometric exercise works.
And here’s a video showing you what you can do throughout the work day.
4 - Get a Desk Treadmill:
One more thing you might consider if you work in an office setting is getting a treadmill and a stand-up desk.
This gives you the ability to do work while exercising at the same time.
These are inexpensive and are great for you if you don’t have to type all day long (take meetings on the treadmill, etc).
Here’s a video showing you how treadmills can help you while you work.
5 - Buy Exercise Bands
Exercise bands are another way to get exercise in at your desk and to help get a more, full-bodied workout.
Exercise bands are great for several reasons.
First off they’re quite compact, you can stuff them in a small bag and use them at your desk without issue.
Secondly, they’re quiet, so if you’re in an office setting you can use them without the fear you’ll disturb coworkers.
Third, they’re easy to use. There’s nothing complicated about an exercise band just pull or push.
And lastly, they’re available in multiple resistance levels so you can target different body parts with the appropriate resistance. They give you the flexibility of weight training without needing to lug around heavy weights and they can certainly help to stem the tide of damage sitting does.
Here’s a video covering simple exercises with bands
As you can see, it’s pretty easy to get started reversing the damage of sitting, I recommend getting started as soon as you can!