Living a sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for a variety of health complications including obesity, heart disease and some cancers, contributing to over three million preventable deaths every year. Sitting too much can be the result of a variety of factors; from working in an office job which requires you to be at a desk all day, to basing most recreational activities inside (such as watching television), injuries which inhibit movement or simply being uninspired to get up and move around.
Why is sitting bad?
Sitting for long periods of time has recently been equated with the negative health effects of smoking, and while this is an over-exaggeration (sitting more than eight hours a day increasing your risk of premature death by 10-20%, while smoking increases your risk of premature death from any cause by approximately 180%), it does bring to bear how bad for us constantly sitting is. Sitting for excessive periods of time has the following negative effects:
- Heart and bowel function: Human beings have evolved to be standing upright with most of our basic functions relying on gravity to work optimally. So when sitting all day our cardiovascular and bowel function are diminished. Both your bowel and heart require gravity to help food and blood work their way through your system, so by sitting all day you are impeding these functions.
- Leg function: Long periods of sitting can result in the wasting away of your leg and gluteal muscles, meaning a decrease in your stability and an increase in your propensity to have falls and injure yourself. Sitting too much can also lead to a shortening of the hip flexor, making exercise less comfortable and lead to issues with your hip joints. All of these issues with your legs, muscles and joints can lead to discomfort, making exercise less enjoyable and therefore, making you less likely to engage in physical activity, resulting in a vicious cycle of sedentary behaviour.
- Mental health: There appears to be a correlation between excessive sitting and poor mental health. While it’s not known for sure exactly what the link between the two is, it could be partly attributed to what you are doing while sitting (such as staring at a screen and not socialising) coupled with limited physical activity. One study of more than 3,300 Australia government workers found that those who spent more than six hours seated during the work day were more likely to score in the moderate to high range on a test of psychological distress than those sitting for fewer than three hours. This was true, even when the participants exercised a lot in their leisure time.
- Various other adverse health effects: Sitting for large amounts of time has also been associated with increased insulin levels and diabetes, heart disease, varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis and even certain types of cancer.
Being sedentary however, is a lifestyle choice which can easily be changed. Making simple amendments to your day to day routine can mitigate the negative effects of excessive sitting, these simple tweaks can include:
- Requesting a standing desk at work or ensuring you take a break to walk around every 15 minutes. You can also try “walking meetings”, instead of sitting to catch up with colleagues, take a walk while you talk
- Building exercise into your day by walking or cycling part way, or all the way, to work
- Standing on public transport and getting off a stop or two early to increase your daily activity
- Taking the stairs instead of the lift
- Setting an hourly timer when at home watching television to ensure you are stretching and moving around regularly
- Standing to read books or watch television
Modern lifestyles which involve working from desks, coupled with the increased use of devices and screens for recreational activity all mean we are engaging in a more sedentary lifestyle. However, by ensuring that we make time for physical activity and modify our day to day behaviours to incorporate more standing time, we can drastically boost our overall health and well-being.
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 M Kilpatrick K Sanderson L Blizzard B Teale A Venna, 2013. Cross-sectional associations between sitting at work and psychological distress: Reducing sitting time may benefit mental health
Mental Health and Physical Activity Volume 6, Issue 2, June 2013, Pages 103-109