A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to a host of health issues, including obesity, back pain, and osteoporosis. Sitting is dangerous enough to be considered the new smoking, according to JustStand.org. The average U.S. adult sits for eight hours each day, reports U.S. News, but that number is higher for many people who may work in desk chairs, watch television or read on the sofa, and otherwise relax while reclining.
A spate of studies has been released calling sitting deadly, and many of them reveal that even exercise isn’t enough to stave off the health impacts of a sedentary lifestyle. While exercise is important, researchers say, it’s as important to intersperse activity throughout the day to break up long periods of sitting.
A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that adults who sat for at least eight hours per day were 15% more likely to die in 15 years than people who sat for no more than four hours per day, according to U.S. News.
The risks are even more pronounced for people older than 60, according to research from Northwestern University. Scientists found that the risk of disability doubled for each hour a person spent sitting, regardless of how much a person exercised.
Scientist Dorothy Dunlap says:
“This is the first time we’ve shown sedentary behavior was related to increased disability regardless of the amount of moderate exercise…Being sedentary is not just a synonym for inadequate physical activity.”
The study examined nearly 2,300 people over the age of 60 who wore devices called accelerometers to measure their movement. Gathering objective data was important because researchers said older people and those who are overweight tend to overestimate the amount of physical activity they’re getting.
So what are the top health risks from sitting?
1. Heart disease
Sitting decreases the rate of blood flowing through the body, limiting the fresh supply of nutrients delivered to all the organs, including the heart. Prolonged sitting has been linked to higher rates of cholesterol, blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease, according to The Washington Post.
Those who spend most of their days seated have about the same heart attack risk as smokers, says Dr. Martha Grogan, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist.
Sitting for more than five hours per day has also been linked to heart failure, reports USA Today. The newspaper quotes Dr. James Levine, inventor of the treadmill desk and a professor with Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University, suggesting that people should try to move for ten minutes every hour. Levine says:
“If you’ve been sitting for an hour, you’ve been sitting too long.”
Many people sit at desks or on sofas with poor posture. The neck might be leaning forward for a closer look at the computer and the back is often hunched. When sitting, by definition, the body is still. Consequently, the bones, muscle, and cartilage of the back and spine stiffen, losing flexibility.
These factors contribute to back and neck pain. While some risk of pain can be mitigated by sitting with good posture, it’s best to rise and move every hour or so, even if it’s just to drink a glass of water.
Strong bones require weight-bearing activity. Sitting increases the risk for osteoporosis, a disease of thin bones that are more prone to breaking. Researchers believe that the increasing number of cases is related to the prevalence of sedentary lifestyles, according to The Washington Post.
4. Weight gain
Expanding waistlines are the target of a multitude of weight loss products and the cause of concern for many people. It’s not all about aesthetics—weight gain has been linked to disorders such as diabetes, some cancers, and osteoarthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While sitting may contribute to weight gain, which can increase the risk of diabetes, long periods spent in a chair are enough in itself to increase risk of the disease, according to research published in Diabetologia.
The study found that limiting time spent sitting is more important than exercise when it comes to reducing the risk of diabetes. Researchers cautioned the findings don’t negate the importance of exercise. Instead, they emphasize how problematic long periods of sitting are.
How to mitigate the dangers of sitting
We’ll talk in more detail on this blog about options like standing desks and taking breaks to walk around, but there are a few ways to reduce the health risks of sitting right now.
One option includes swapping out a chair for a stability ball. These balls require core engagement to stay balanced and so they work the muscles even though the body is still.
While in a traditional chair, be sure to maintain good posture, with the back straight. Switch chairs if needed, making sure to find one with adequate lumbar support.
Part of the problem with sitting is the reduced blood flow and muscle constriction it creates. By doing a few simple chair exercises, you can increase circulation and work muscles without standing. Try ankle flexes and circles, repeating each exercise ten times and completing the set on both sides.
The hips tighten when seated, so simple hip stretches may feel good. With the left leg remaining on the floor, take the right ankle and rest it on the left knee, keeping the foot flexed to protect the knee. If it feels good, bend forward slightly to access a stretch in the hip.
To release the spine, do a simple spinal twist. Place the right hand on the left knee and the left hand behind you. Gently twist, making sure to keep the spine straight. Hold for three to five breaths before switching to the other side.
What do you think about the dangers of sitting?
Image by Mish Sukharev via Flickr