In recent years there’s been a hike in studies looking at the health impact of our increasingly sedentary lives, culminating in sitting being declared the new smoking. This may seem a bit dramatic, but time and time again research highlights the significant risks of sitting for prolonged periods.
On average we spend over nine hours a day sitting and this has no doubt increased considerably through lockdown. We’ve all spent more time at home than ever before, including many of us working from home without any form of commute. In the short term, with the extenuating and extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, this is manageable. But for some of us, our working life is set to continue this way for the foreseeable future, so our habits need to be addressed before they become a problem.
In 2019, the results of the Fellowes The Work Colleague of the Future project were unveiled, in the form of a life-sized dummy they called Emma. After extensive research into the profound effects of a desk-bound job, this predicted what physical changes we might expect to see within the next two decades unless some key changes are made to working environments. Sitting for hours with bad posture and making repetitive movements had caused Emma to have a permanently bent back, rotund stomach and swollen wrists and ankles, plus varicose veins from poor blood flow. More than 90% of the UK office workers interviewed for the project reported health issues that reduced their productivity. Almost half suffered from eye strain, sore backs or headaches caused by their inadequate workspace, and seven out of ten workers were regularly taking medication to combat these complaints. It’s likely that enforced working from home has exacerbated this further, with hours spent on Zoom and tales of ironing boards being repurposed as desks.
Below are just some of the physiological effects that prolonged sitting can trigger:
- Poor posture is common when sitting and this puts pressure on the lower back and creates tension in your neck and shoulders. Limited movement also stiffens joints.
- Your metabolism slows down by 90 percent after just half an hour of sitting, limiting the action of enzymes that move fat from your arteries to your muscles to be burnt off.
- Good cholesterol drops by 20 percent after two hours of sitting. This is the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol that helps remove other forms of cholesterol from your bloodstream. The body also becomes less sensitive to insulin, increasing the risk of diabetes.
- C reactive protein, an inflammation marker, is raised in people who sit for extended periods, and is thought to be what increases their risk of cancer, predominantly breast or colon, but also lung, prostate, endometrial and ovarian cancer.
- Your ability to focus is reduced when you sit for too long. More worryingly, a correlation has been found between people who are more sedentary and thinner medial temporal lobes, the area of the brain responsible for creating and storing memories. This is a known precursor to dementia.
The cure for too much sitting isn’t to do more exercise though. The term ‘active couch potato’ has been coined to describe those people who meet the recommended exercise quota but nonetheless spend the majority of their time sitting, both at work and at home. Exercise is good for you of course, but it can't counteract or offset the potential damage done through so many sedentary hours.
So what can you do?
Just getting up and moving around for a few minutes every 20 minutes or so gets everything going again. Simple. Research has shown that breaking up periods of inactivity is one of the best ways to prevent type 2 diabetes, for example. But when you’re absorbed in what you’re doing, it’s too easy to forget about standing and moving around, so we end up going for hours at a stretch sitting in front of our computers or the TV. And sitting behaviour tracks from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, which means it really matters how much your children sit now.
The key is to develop good habits. Make a point of getting up whenever TV ads are on, or during your working day, whether you’re talking on the phone or joining an online meeting, ask yourself if you could be standing instead. This is where an adjustable standing desk comes in. It helps you take every opportunity to move, but also allows you to sit for the tasks that require it. You can alternate between the two and this is the ideal scenario for your body. It also gives you the possibility to build up your stamina to the ratio of standing to sitting that works best for you.
- Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About it by Dr James A. Levine
- Sedentary Behaviour and Obesity: Review of the Current Scientific Evidence. March 2010