How to Combat the Sitting Epidemic

“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting,” writes Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative. “We are sitting ourselves to death.” He has spent years studying the results of what some call the “sitting epidemic” and used those two sentences to summarize his research.

Our lifestyles are becoming increasingly sedentary, which can adversely affect our health. However, we do have options for counteracting the potential negative effects of sitting.

Our Increasing Sedentary Lifestyles

Compared with past generations, people today spend more time sitting—while at a desk at work, while traveling in cars, and while watching TV at home. In summary, “people move less and sit more,” researchers write in a Mayo Clinic Proceedings study. Today, the average person spends 12 hours sitting each day. The sitting epidemic has become such a concern that the scientific community coined the term “Sitting Disease” to refer to the negative effects of sitting. Research has also found that as we get older, we tend to sit more.

Why Sitting Too Much is Bad for Your Health

What’s so bad about sitting? Well, many things in life are healthy in moderation, and sitting is one them. Overdo it, and you might have a problem with one or more of the following:

Increased risk for chronic disease: In part because spending excessive time sitting is associated with increased levels of internal and abdominal fat, an overly sedentary lifestyle can increase risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to the University of Leicester’s Dr. Joe Henson.

Increased risk of death: Several studies have studied the link between a sedentary lifestyle and mortality. One study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the amount of time spent sitting per day, especially in long, uninterrupted bouts, is associated with all-cause mortality. Keith Diaz, the study’s lead author, said the results indicated that “as total sedentary time increased, so did early death by any cause.” People who sat 13 hours per day had a 200% greater risk of death than those who sat less than 11 hours per day.

Reduced thinking ability: Whether you’re crunching numbers or writing a press release, you probably need your brain in proper working order while you’re working. Sitting for too long slows down lots of bodily functions, including brain function. Moving circulates new blood and oxygen throughout your body and brain, which helps you think. There’s a reason people take walks to think.

Increased back and neck problems: Sitting too much and too long can strain your neck, particularly if you crane your neck forward to get a better look at the computer screen. Also, slouching can overextend the back muscles, causing damage and soreness. Remaining motionless for long periods of time can crunch the discs in the back incorrectly, reducing spine flexibility and increasing risk for herniated lumbar disks.

How to Combat the Sitting Epidemic

Unfortunately, simply adding some exercise to your day does not necessarily reverse the effects of sitting for long periods of time. So what can we do?

Take a break from sitting every 30 minutes: As a general rule, try not to sit more than 30 minutes at a time. Walk across the office, stretch, or work while standing for a while. Overall, you should spend about two hours out of your desk chair every workday, according to a statement in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Sit on an exercise ball or get a standing desk: Sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair strengthens your back and core muscles to promote balance and flexibility. Standing desks allow a person to either sit or stand while working, making it easy to switch back and forth between the two. They even make treadmill desks now. If you can’t afford one on your own, perhaps pool money and purchase one for the office to share.

Schedule a “walking meeting”: Traditionally, meeting take place at tables or desks in someone’s office or the conference room. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If your office is located in an area that’s safe to navigate on foot, try scheduling a walking meeting. That way you can talk to your coworker about the matter at hand outside the distractions of the office while enjoying the outdoors and getting some exercise.  You could also get in the habit of using part of your lunch break to take a walk before getting back to work.

Stretch and/or do yoga: When you take one of your breaks, try doing some stretches or yoga to ward off stiffness and promote good circulation. Experts suggest yoga poses cow and cat to promote back flexibility.

Other ideas: Park farther away from the building. Take the stairs. Take phone calls standing up. Get a Fitbit. Visit the office gym. Go see your coworkers.


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