Have you heard the saying that “sitting is the new smoking”? While that may not be entirely correct (because of their different effects on the body), excessive sitting does have a negative impact on our wellness.
These days, our work has us sitting at the computer for hours on end and when we’re not working, one of our primary sources of entertainment is television. Oh, and let’s not forget our Social Media addiction….
With all this sitting we’re seeing obesity rates climb, diabetes diagnoses rise, and cardiovascular health decline.
The Impacts of Too Much Sitting
When we talk about too much sitting, what are we talking about?
While it’s hard to define too much sitting, what we can define is whether we’re getting enough physical activity, or whether we spend most of our waking hours engaged in sedentary behavior.
Let’s take a look at the definitions for physical inactivity and sedentary behavior:
Physical Inactivity – This is defined as “not meeting the [Physical Activity] guidelines of 150 min/wk of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity.”
Sedentary Behavior – Sedentary behavior is “any waking behavior characterized by an energy expenditure [less than or equal to 1.5 metabolic equivalents]….while in a sitting, reclining or lying posture.” (1)
If we’re spending a lot of time sitting, there’s a good chance we’re not meeting the physical activity guidelines, and of course, sitting definitely meets the definition of sedentary behavior.
Here’s the scary thing about that:
Physical inactivity is considered the fourth leading cause of death, and it is estimated that 6% of coronary heart disease, 7% of type 2 diabetes, 10% of breast cancer, and 10% of colon cancer are attributed to physical inactivity.Henschel, Beate, et al
This can be unsettling for many of us. We may have chronic illnesses or pain conditions that keep us from meeting that 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity of exercise recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services (2).
And sometimes, we may just dread exercise so much, that dread becomes a roadblock for us. In that case, maybe we need to change how we view exercise. Rather than looking at exercise as something we have to do, let’s find things that we like to do. You really don’t have to do things you hate to get results.
We’ll talk about the good news about that in just a minute, but first, let’s take a look at a few ways too much sitting can impact us.
As we mentioned above, one major risk of sitting too much is cardiovascular disease. This includes higher total cholesterol and high triglycerides. In addition, people who sit for more than 10 hours a day are more likely to have high blood pressure.
The link between sitting and a higher risk of diabetes is well-established. Using our muscles increases insulin sensitivity, and sitting for prolonged periods tends to decrease it. (5)
There seems to be a link between some cancers and inactivity. This is especially true for breast and colon cancer.
When we remain in a seated position for a long time, we can create muscle imbalances in the hips. Over time, our hip flexors may shorten, which can change the way our hip joints move. In addition to this, our gluteal (butt) muscles can weaken, causing our lower back muscles to do work they’re not designed to do. This just sets us up for injury to our lower back. (3)
Varicose Veins or Spider Veins
Because prolonged sitting can cause blood to pool in our legs, we may be more susceptible to varicose veins or spider veins.
Anxiety and Depression
Although we don’t yet know much about the link between sitting and mental health, we do know that the risk of both anxiety and depression is higher in people that sit more. (4)
Stiff Neck and Shoulders
As my fellow bloggers can probably attest, sitting at the computer for long periods of time can really take a toll on our neck and shoulders. Often we forget about our posture and crane our necks to see our screens, which can cause more of those muscle imbalances we were talking about earlier.
Now For the Good News…
It can be a little discouraging to hear all these negative effects of sitting and know that our jobs or health issues don’t give us much choice. There’s good news though: taking breaks in our sitting can help mitigate those negative effects.
Even if we’re not getting the recommended 150 – 300 minutes of physical activity per week, if we’re breaking up our bouts of prolonged sitting, we can still reduce the negative effects.
In a couple of different studies, breaks in sitting were enough to have a positive impact on several different biometric markers. This seems to indicate that “breaking up prolonged periods of sedentary behavior with short bouts of activity may counteract some of the ill effects of high amounts of sitting time.” (1)
Ways to Break Up Our Sitting Time
Sometimes we think we have to get moving for a large chunk of time in order to see benefits, but there are lots of little things we can do to get a little more movement into our lives and improve our wellness.
In addition to moving more in general, here are some ways we can break up our sitting time:
Set a timer for every 30 minutes. Make it a goal to get up every 30 minutes and move around a little. Small amounts of time add up. Think about it this way: If we’re awake for, say, 15 hours a day, if we just move around for 2 minutes every 30 minutes, that’s 30 minutes of movement each day.
Do part of your work standing up. Prolonged standing in one place has its own set of issues, but standing for a few minutes at a time can help us expend more energy and prevent the muscle shortening we talked about above.
Walk around when you’re talking on the phone. Rather than sitting while we’re talking to friends and family, we can get a few minutes of movement in.
Use TV commercial time to stretch or do an easy exercise, such as bodyweight squats, etc. The main goal is just to get up off the sofa. Whatever helps us do that is great.
Take a dance break every once in a while. Putting on our favorite song and dancing around is a great option for breaking up the day. We can get some exercise and have fun.
Move around in your chair. Even if we can’t get up out of our chairs, we can move around, change positions, and even do some seated exercises. The main thing is to move.
These are just a few ideas to help us break up that sitting time. As with all other wellness changes, we need to increase our activity slowly over time.
We still need more research to understand how our more sedentary lifestyles affect us. Our bodies are wonderfully made, and we may never understand everything that goes on at a cellular level. What we do know is that there are things we can do to help them function at their best.
We also know what not to do, such as sitting too much. While sitting may not exactly be the new smoking, it can negatively impact our health.
This is something I find myself working on constantly. How about you? What are some of the ways you break up your sitting? Please share!
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(1) Henschel, Beate et al. Time Spent Sitting as an Independent Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, vol. 14,2 204-215. 1 Sep. 2017, doi:10.1177/1559827617728482
(2) Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/be-active/physical-activity-guidelines-for-americans/index.html
(3) Anti-Sitting Strategies for Your Clients, https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/certified/january-2020/7443/anti-sitting-strategies-for-your-clients/
(4) The Dangers of Sitting, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/the-dangers-of-sitting
(5) The Surprising Effects of Too Much Sitting, http://www.diabetesforecast.org/2017/nov-dec/the-surprising-effects-of-too.html