We’ve all heard the warnings that “sitting is the new smoking,” and probably think they’re an exaggeration. But there’s now overwhelming evidence that sitting at your desk hour after hour is really, really bad for you. So much so that sitting is now being viewed by many health professionals as its own independent risk factor for poor health and disease. Yes, just like smoking and obesity.
Even worse, several studies suggest that if you sit all day, you undo many of the benefits of regular exercise. The experts say damage caused by prolonged sitting cannot be reversed by a couple of training sessions a week. That’s because prolonged sitting slows or even halts some of your body’s key metabolic activities, and in turn can lead to weight gain, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and even some cancers.
But why is sitting so bad? The truth is that it’s simply another form of inactivity, which is the sworn enemy of the human body, says Professor Mike Climstein, an exercise physiologist from Bond University in Australia.
Our bodies were never created to be inactive for hours at a stretch, he says, pointing out that while many of us have enthusiastically embraced the Paleo or raw way of eating, we haven’t exactly done the same with the hunter-gatherer way of living (moving all day). In fact, Prof. Climstein says as health professionals wake up to the damaging effects of inactivity, it’s being given a new name by those that investigate it: “inactivity physiology.”
Dr. Alicia Thorp, a researcher at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne (where laboratory studies on the effects of prolonged sitting are being conducted) says that we’re finally figuring out why sitting is so bad for us.
“Muscle contraction is a major contributor to many of the body’s regulatory processes, such as breaking down glucose, and when we sit, our leg muscles are essentially inactive,” she says. “Sitting for prolonged periods can slow the production and activities of key enzymes involved in the removal of fats and sugars from the blood into skeletal muscle, and exercising won’t prevent this slowing down from occurring.”
Not moving, Dr. Thorp says, can lead to transient rises in blood glucose, free fatty acids and triglycerides. “When repeated multiple times each day, these elevations can trigger a cascade of pathogenic pathways including increased oxidative stress, inflammation and endothelial dysfunction which can ultimately promote atherosclerosis and cardiovascular events,” she adds.
Dr. Thorp says we need to encourage a “whole day” approach to physical activity. “It’s now becoming clear that it’s not enough that people just focus on getting 30 minutes of purposeful exercise a day. We need to take every opportunity to move around and be active during the day.”
Prof. Climstein says “the simplest thing you can do when you’ve been sitting is stand up, and the contraction of the musculature will basically reduce the deleterious effects of sitting. Ideally, of course, you wouldn’t just stand up, you’d get up for a minute, walk around, sit back down.”
Various studies show that small breaks with activity — say, every 20 or 30 minutes — will do the trick, he says.
TOP 5 WAYS TO ADDRESS INACTIVITY AT WORK
Do things that contract most of the muscles in your body for a couple of minutes, at least every 20 to 30 minutes.
- Incorporate standing as often as possible into you work routine. It restores many of the vital metabolic activities that slow down or stop when you sit. Consider standing when answering the phone and even holding standing meetings with your colleagues.
- Every 20 minutes or half an hour or so, perform a couple of desk exercises from the list below.
- If you’ve got access to a stairwell, walk up and down stairs for a couple of minutes — this is a seriously good bang-for-the-buck activity, according to Finnish researchers.
- At lunchtime, go for brisk walks. Studies show that walking fast is more beneficial than ordinary walking pace.
- Consider a height-adjustable stand-up desk. But don’t try to stand all day, says Dr. Thorp. Research by the Institute has shown that alternating between standing up and sitting down works best. Like sitting on a balance ball all day, standing all day will unnecessarily tire all but the fittest people and lead to bad posture.
DESKERCISES FOR YOUR WORKDAY
Desk exercises shouldn’t be intense enough to make you sweat and feel uncomfortable, but they should increase your breathing rate and your heart rate. Pick a couple you like, set a timer to remind yourself of your movement break, and start feeling better!
- Breathing Squat — start with a nice wide stance, breathe in, then out as you squat down, and breathe in again as you come up.
- Kneeling Lunge with an Upward Twist — start on your knees and place one foot forward in a kneeling lunge. Place you opposite hand on your knee, move your arm to the inside of the back leg and lift your chest up to the ceiling. Keep your chin to chest and if it feels appropriate, look up. Keep your breath easy and free. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
- Dynamic Horse Stance — start on your hands and knees, breathe in as you extend one arm and opposite leg up as high as you can comfortably, pause, then breathe out as you bring it all the way in till your elbow touches your opposite knee.
- Thigh Release — stand at your desk on one leg, holding onto your desk for stability if needed. Lift your other knee and bend it, bringing your heel toward the same-side buttock. Moving slowly, reach back with your hand and clasp the inside of your foot, and bring it closer to the buttock. Keep your pelvis stable and your core engaged. Hold for 30 seconds and gently release and shake out the leg. Repeat on the other side.
- Push-Up Jackknife — start your push-up and lower yourself down; as you come back up to start position draw a knee into your chest. Alternate legs every rep.
- Single Leg Bend and Pull — start standing on your left leg, bend and reach with your right hand, as you come up pull your right hand into your chest, and draw your right knee up to waist height.
- Lower Body Russian Twist — start on your back with your arms out to the side, hips and knees bent to 90 degrees, slowly lower legs to one side, bring them back and alternate sides.
- Chest Opener — your chest muscles shorten from hours of being seated and working at your computer. Create space by stopping in a door frame to stretch the subscapularis, part of your rotator cuff muscle. Place your right arm on the door frame at a right-angle, 90-degree elbow flexion and lean your entire body and the right shoulder into the door until you feel a comfortable stretch on the front of the right shoulder. Hold that for approximately 30 seconds and then repeat the stretch. Repeat on the other side.
THE NO-WORKOUT WORKOUT
Incorporate incidental exercise into your routine before, during and after work — it will have an impact.
- Take the stairs rather than the elevator.
- Use a bathroom on another floor.
- Put your trash bin on the other side of the office.
- Walk or run to work instead of using the car or public transit.
- If using the bus or train, get off a stop or two earlier.
- When in the car, park as far away as possible from work or the shops.
- Pick up the pace when walking, as brisk walking is more beneficial.
- Meet a friend for coffee to go and a walk, rather than sitting in a café.
- At home, do more housework, such as vacuuming.
- When watching TV, try doing some chores like standing and ironing or folding the laundry.
- Get off the couch during commercial breaks. Use them as a timer for activity.
- When shopping, don’t push the cart to the car. Carry your bags from the checkout.
DOES SITTING ON A BALL WORK?
Dr. Thorp says the main issue with using a balance ball at work is that it requires very good core strength. “Most people don’t have the strength to allow them to sit for long periods of time correctly — the result is slouching, which leads to back, shoulder and core strain and pain. Balance balls also generally don’t allow you to sit at the correct height for most computer workstations, which creates other ergonomic issues.”
However, balls are great for movement breaks and you can build up your core strength to spend a portion of your day seated on one. Just be sure to adjust your desk height to match!