What Happens When You Sit Too Long
In recent centuries, advances in industry and technology have fundamentally changed the way many humans spend their waking hours. Where it was once commonplace to spend virtually all of those hours on your feet – walking, twisting, bending, and moving – it is now the norm to spend those hours sitting.
The modern-day office is built around sitting, such that you can conduct business – make phone calls, send e-mails and faxes, and even participate in video conferences – without ever leaving your chair.
But there’s an inherent problem with this lifestyle. Your body was designed for near perpetual movement. It thrives when given opportunity to move in its fully intended range of motion and, as we’re now increasingly seeing, struggles when forced to stay in one place for long periods.
What Happens When You Sit for Too Long?
Studies looking at life in natural agriculture environments show that people in agrarian villages sit for about three hours a day. The average American office worker can sit for 13 to 15 hours a day.
The difference between a “natural” amount of sitting and modern, inappropriate amounts of sitting is huge, and accounts for negative changes at the molecular level.
According to Dr. James Levine, co-director of the Mayo Clinic and the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative, there are at least 24 different chronic diseases and conditions associated with excessive sitting.
As he wrote in Scientific American:1
“Sitting for long periods is bad because the human body was not designed to be idle. I have worked in obesity research for several decades, and my laboratory has studied the effect of sedentary lifestyles at the molecular level all the way up to office design.
Lack of movement slows metabolism, reducing the amount of food that is converted to energy and thus promoting fat accumulation, obesity, and the litany of ills—heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and more—that come with being overweight. Sitting is bad for lean people, too.
For instance, sitting in your chair after a meal leads to high blood sugar spikes, whereas getting up after you eat can cut those spikes in half.”
Not surprisingly, sitting for extended periods of time increases your risk for premature death. This is especially concerning given the fact that you may be vulnerable to these risks even if you are a fit athlete who exercises regularly.
It takes a toll on your mental health, too. Women who sit more than seven hours per day were found to have a 47 percent higher risk of depression than women who sit four hours or less.2
There’s really no question anymore that if you want to lower your risk of chronic disease, you’ve got to get up out of your chair. This is at least as important as regular exercise… and quite possibly even more so.
Practically Speaking: 5 Tips for Better Health if You Work at a Computer
You might be thinking this sounds good in theory… but how do you translate your seated computer job into a standing one? It’s easier than you might think. For starters, check out these essential tips for computer workers:3
- Stand Up
If you’re lucky, your office may be one that has already implemented sit-stand workstations or even treadmill desks. Those who used such workstations easily replaced 25 percent of their sitting time with standing and boosted their well-being (while decreasing fatigue and appetite).4
But if you don’t have a specially designed desk, don’t let that stop you. Prop your computer up on a stack of books, a printer, or even an overturned trash can and get on your feet.
When I travel in hotels, I frequently use the mini fridge or simply turn the wastebasket upside down and put it on top of the desk, and it works just fine.
- Get Moving
Why simply stand up when you can move too? The treadmill desk, which was invented by Dr. Levine, is ideal for this, but again it’s not the only option. You can walk while you’re on the phone, walk to communicate with others in your office (instead of e-mailing), and even conduct walking meetings.
- Monitor Your Screen Height
Whether you’re sitting or standing, the top of your computer screen should be level with your eyes, so you’re only looking down about 10 degrees to view the screen. If it’s lower, you’ll move your head downward, which can lead to back and neck pain. If it’s higher, it can cause dry eye syndrome.
- Imagine Your Head as a Bowling Ball
Your head must be properly aligned to avoid undue stress on your neck and spine. Avoid craning your head forward, holding it upright instead. And while you’re at it, practice chin retractions, or making a double chin, to help line up your head, neck, and spine.
- Try the “Pomodoro Technique”
You know those little tomato-shaped (pomodoro is Italian for tomato) timers? Wind one up to 25 minutes (or set an online calculator). During this time, focus on your work intensely. When it goes off, take 5 minutes to walk, do jumping jacks, or otherwise take a break from your work. This helps you to stay productive while avoiding burnout.
What’s It Really Like to Work While Standing?
If you’re curious… just try it. Reactions tend to be mixed, at least initially, but if you stick with it you will be virtually guaranteed to experience benefits. The Guardian, for instance, recently featured an article with a first-hand account of working while standing, and the author wasn’t impressed.
He said “standing up to work felt like a horrible punishment” and lead to aches and decreased productivity.5 I couldn’t disagree more, but I will say that standing all day takes some adjustment. However, many people feel better almost immediately. As one worker who uses an adjustable-height work desk told TIME:6
“I definitely feel healthier standing while working as it causes me to be more focused on my posture and ‘hold’ myself better in terms of my stomach and shoulders especially.”
Personally, standing more has worked wonders for me. I used to recommend intermittent movement, or standing up about once every 15 minutes, as a way to counteract the ill effects of sitting. Now, I’ve found an even better strategy, which is simply not sitting. I used to sit for 12 to 14 hours a day. Now, I strive to sit for less than one hour a day.
After I made this change, the back pain that I have struggled with for decades (and tried many different methods to relieve without lasting success) has disappeared. In addition to not sitting, I typically walk about 15,000 steps a day, in addition to, not in place of, my regular exercise program. I believe this combination of exercise, non-exercise activities like walking 10,000 steps a day, along with avoiding sitting whenever possible is the key to being really fit and enjoying a pain-free and joyful life.
You’re Not a Prisoner to Your Chair
If you’re still sitting down while reading this… now’s your chance – stand up! As Dr. Levine said: “We live amid a sea of killer chairs: adjustable, swivel, recliner, wing, club, chaise longue, sofa, arm, four-legged, three-legged, wood, leather, plastic, car, plane, train, dining and bar. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you do not have to use them.”
Many progressive workplaces are helping employees to stand and move more during the day. For instance, some corporations encourage “walk-and-talk” meetings and e-mail-free work zones, and offer standing workstations and treadmill desks. But if yours isn’t among them, take matters into your own hands. You may be used to sitting down when you get to work, but try, for a day, standing up instead.
One day can turn into the next and the next, but please be patient and stick with it. Research shows that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to build a new habit and have it feel automatic.7 Once you get to this point, you’ll likely already be reaping the many rewards of not sitting, things like improved blood sugar and blood pressure levels, less body fat and a lower risk of chronic disease.
Health and Wellness Associates