Sitting on Poor Health: How Sitting is Affecting Our Wellbeing and What Can Be Done About It


These days, we spend a lot more time sitting than our grandparents did, or even our parents, and it’s killing us.

The link between sitting and increased risks of poor health and death were first suspected in the 1950s, when London bus drivers were found to be almost twice as likely to die of a heart attack as their bus conductor colleagues. 

It didn’t take long before doctors and researchers realized that people who sit for more than seven hours a day have much higher risks of developing heart problems, various cancers, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

In other words, there’s no question that sitting too much is bad for you - even lethal.

But the trouble is that, as we move away from physical labor and move much more of our work online, we’re spending a lot more of our time stationary, despite the recommendation of doctors that we exercise to counteract this inactivity.

For more information on the dangers of sitting and how it affecting your health take a look at the infographic below. 

So what’s to be done?

Luckily, there’s more than one way to work at a desk. Here are a few alternatives to the chair to help you get your heart rate up, induce muscle activity, and stay in good shape in the office.

Standing Desks

Standing desks became the trendy office furniture a few years ago, and it wasn’t long before they were de rigueur for tech offices and hip startups.

And while this may have caused more than its fair share of derisive snorts, there are some pretty good reasons to stand while you work.

For one, sitting has been linked to increased fat deposits around the midriff, waist, and buttocks, while also slowing the metabolism. That means that you’re slowly gaining weight while simultaneously reducing your ability to keep it off.

Standing, while hardly intensive exercise, does require muscle tension, balance, and focus, making it far more attractive than sitting for those who want to stay trim. When you’re sitting, you remove most of the need for physical engagement of the muscles and joints. Even the minor unconscious effort needed to balance on your feet engages the back and core muscles, keeps joints loose, and improves circulation.

What’s more, there’s a good chance standing increases engagement, sparks motivation, and improves productivity. In one study, it was found that 52% of participants reported feeling more engaged overall after a year of using a standing desk.

Standing rather than sitting for six days a week can also help you burn more than 50 calories a day, which could add up to about 14 pounds of weight lost each year!

A further advantage of standing is that it subconsciously primes you to be more inclined to move, which is the key problem with sitting. By being prepared to move around, you increase brain activity, creativity, improve your social interaction, and increase efficiency by collaborating freely with coworkers and by maintaining momentum, both physically and mentally.

Perhaps the most encouraging benefit of standing is also one of the more surprising: longer life.

In one study, it was found that sitting shortens telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of DNA strands that allow your DNA to last longer and work harder. When these caps are shortened, your DNA molecules die off more quickly, requiring your body to spend more energy replacing them and costing it valuable resources which aren’t being replaced by snacking at your desk.

Two interesting facts come out of this: there’s a definite link between sturdier telomeres and shorter sitting times, and taking part in exercise, crucially, doesn’t help - meaning that this is one of the advantages unique to getting out of your chair, even if it’s not to jump on the treadmill.

Sitting on the Floor

Not all sitting is equal. The primary complaint about sitting in a chair is that it’s a less ‘natural’ position for a body, more prone to the kind of metabolism-slowing trouble that you want to avoid.

A great alternative?

Sitting on the floor.

By using a low table, or even just spreading your work on the floor in front of you, you can take advantage of a position that’s more natural for your spine and hips. You’ll have to take care to maintain proper posture, though - back straight, shoulders back, and legs carefully folded.

There are several great advantages of making the effort to keep the correct posture, though. For one, it helps straighten the back and engage the core, simply by reducing your reliance on lounging which comes instinctively when sitting in a chair or on a couch. When you spend an excessive amount of time in a lounging position, you’re allowing your muscles to relax excessively, softening them and resulting in a greater chance of cramps, aches, and pains, both in the muscles and the joints.

Sitting on the floor also engages the lower back muscles, which, while uncomfortable at first, eventually strengthens the back enough that keeping up your posture becomes second nature, while at the same time increasing muscle strength and flexibility.

Lastly, sitting in this position is much better for your digestion and, consequently, you’ll probably see some improvement in your metabolism and your weight. When you sit in a chair, your digestive organs are arranged in a way that’s not exactly beneficial to your body, suppressing the processes that help the metabolism keep up the constant low-level activity that it needs. Even the slightest engagement of muscles is activity enough to help your body keep burning calories at a constant rate while maintaining the circulatory rate it needs for heart and digestive health.

Stretching and Walking

While stretching is often thought of as a warmup activity prior to intensive exercise, it’s terrific exercise on its own to begin with, and it’s great for the office because you don’t need to go to a special space to do it, and you won’t end up sweaty and winded if you take it slowly.

Much of the trouble people with joint and muscle pain have is a result of improper or insufficient use of the body’s muscles and flexors.

It stands to reason, right? Use it or lose it.

But in this case, it’s about more than tone or firmness. Excessive sitting takes away the body’s ability to move fluently, by weakening the joints and softening the muscles.

Luckily, stretching takes little effort, and while it works great with a standing desk, it can work just as well with a traditional waist-high one, too. Simple stretches like lunges, toe-lifts, and pectoral and arm stretches help keep you alert, engaged, and strengthened as you work through the day.

Similarly, walking can achieve a lot of the benefits of stretching through more instinctive use.

Do you ever get the urge to pace while talking on the phone? Use it!

Many of the activities undertaken in modern offices don’t necessarily have to be done in front of a computer. Rather than sending an email, call the person you’re trying to contact. For one, it’ll help to establish a more personal connection, and makes the conversation more memorable, and it’s also a terrific opportunity to either pace your office or go around the block once or twice. (Bonus - a bit of fresh air!)

You can also record notes or ideas for projects with a dictation app or a simple recording device, or meet with a colleague while you both walk. If you have news to catch up on, or messages to listen to, flip on the speakers and have a short stroll or stretch right by your desk.

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