Sitting: The new smoking

Many studies have shown the negative impacts of sitting behind a desk all day, so much so that it is now termed ‘the new smoking’ but with an increasingly digital world, and with it more time sat, working, it’s hard to escape. Studies show that a greater percentage of people are now office-based, sat for the majority of the day, and rarely exceeding 5000 per day. This is worrying considering we are a species evolved to run, jump, skip, hop, basically, move.

Sitting: The negative effects

Sitting has a number of negative impacts on the human body which come under a number of categories. For the sake of this article, I’ll start at the top and work my way down. Afterward, I’ll provide a few simple things you can do to help. They won’t be miracle cures, or even seem that beneficial, but over time, they should help alleviate some of the problems.

  • The brain: Moving helps pump blood around the body, including the brain, which results in the production of the brain- and mood-enhancing chemicals. When you sit for prolonged periods, the volume of pumped blood decreases, and with it the mood-enhancing chemicals essential to healthy living. Work in the creative industry? This could really hinder your creativity.
  • The mood: The links between sitting and mental health aren’t fully understood, but we do know that the risk of both anxiety and depression is higher in people that sit more. This might be because people who spend a lot of time sitting are missing the positive effects of physical activity and fitness. If so, getting up and moving may help.
  • The neck: If most of your sitting occurs at a desk at work, craning your neck forward toward a keyboard or tilting your head to cradle a phone while typing can strain the cervical vertebrae and lead to permanent imbalances.
  • The back: When we move, soft discs between vertebrae expand and contract like sponges, soaking up fresh blood and nutrients. But when we sit for a long time, discs are squashed unevenly.
  • The stomach: When you stand, move or even sit up straight, abdominal muscles keep you upright. But when you slump in a chair, they go unused. Tight back muscles and wimpy abs form a posture-wrecking alliance that can exaggerate the spine’s natural arch, a condition called hyperlordosis, or swayback.
  • The legs: Sitting for long periods of time slows blood circulation, which causes fluid to pool in the legs. Problems range from swollen ankles and varicose veins to dangerous blood clots called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Weight-bearing activities such as walking and running stimulate hip and lower-body bones to grow thicker, denser, and stronger. Scientists partially attribute the recent surge in cases of osteoporosis to lack of activity.
  • The muscles: Flexible hips help keep you balanced, but chronic sitters so rarely extend the hip flexor muscles in front that they become short and tight, limiting the range of motion and stride length. Studies have found that decreased hip mobility is the main reason elderly people tend to fall. Sitting requires your glutes to do absolutely nothing, and they get used to it. Soft glutes hurt your stability, your ability to push off, and your ability to maintain a powerful stride.

Sitting: What you can do about the problems

It’s unlikely that you can solve the entire issue with sitting if you have a job behind a desk unless you get a manual job, but there are things you can do to reduce the impact. Sitting on something wobbly such as an exercise ball or even a backless stool to force your core muscles to work. Sit up straight and keep your feet flat on the floor in front of you so they support about a quarter of your weight. Walking during commercials when you’re watching TV. Even a snail-like pace of 1 mph would burn twice the calories of sitting, and more vigorous exercise would be even better. Alternating between sitting and standing at your workstation. If you can’t do that, stand up every half hour or so and walk. Trying yoga poses — the cow pose and the cat — to improve extension and flexion in your back.