Are you sitting down as you read this? Chances are that the answer to that question is “yes.” We are a culture that has designed a world where sitting is the natural default position. From the moment you wake up and sit down to breakfast or a cup of coffee, until the moment you put your feet up at the end of a long day, you have likely spent more time sitting that you spent sleeping the entire night before. It is estimated that the average person spends between nine and ten hours a day sitting. For most people, that equals at least half of their waking hours, and spending that much time perched on your bottom comes with some very serious consequences for your health.
So many daily activities are designed for sitting. You sit when you eat, when you commute, when you work at your desk, while you wait at the doctor’s office, while you socialize with friends, while you read, watch television, or study. If you are not doing something that requires you to physically move, you naturally default to a sitting position whenever possible. We have known for quite some time that so much sitting can be bad for your posture and cause back pain. What you might not know is that so much sitting, it turns out, can actually shorten your life.
One study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine noted that sedentary activity is independently related to an increased risk in the development of health conditions that can lead to premature mortality, regardless of physical activity. That is a startling conclusion. What this means is that even your daily exercise routine, whether it is a five mile run or evening walk, is not enough on its own to counteract the negative side effects of the hours you spend sitting. Here is a brief list of some of the research supported consequences of a sedentary lifestyle.
Sitting is Linked to Higher Rates of Obesity
This, admittedly, does not come as too much of a surprise. We all know that moving your body helps to maintain a healthy weight. Your body is designed to burn a certain number of calories a day, even if you do nothing more than hang out on the sofa all day. The average person takes in more calories than what is needed for this very base level of activity. We take in extra calories because we need to. You might spend your days working, taking care of your family or studying for that dreaded exam, all of which require nutritional fuel in the form of calories.
The problem is that while we need those calories for the mental energy required to make it through the day, our bodies, while we sit, are being quite lazy. This causes an imbalance between calories consumed and calories used. In addition, frequent sitting can slow down your metabolism, meaning that your body does not effectively use the fuel it receives and you end up with a few extra pounds around your midsection and other places.
People with physical occupations, such as farming, construction or landscaping, burn up to 1,000 more calories per day than office workers, and research shows that obese people tend to sit an average of two hours a day more than people who are able to maintain a healthy weight.
Sitting Increases Your Chances of Chronic Disease
One estimation claims that extended sitting can put you at a greater risk of over thirty chronic health conditions. Besides the fact that you might not be your most physically fit self or that you carry around a few extra pounds, what is it about sitting that jeopardizes your health on such a large scale? There are several theories about this; however the most popular one revolves around the idea that we are not a sedentary species by nature. Our ancestors depended upon physical activity for survival and over time, we have moved away from that into a less active means of living. The idea is that the lack of activity signals to the body that it is time to shut down. The time that we spend sitting has been proven to lead to diseases such as:
- Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
- Heart Disease
- Digestive Disorders
- Spinal Disorders, such as Herniated Disks
- Shoulder and Neck Pain
- Muscle Degeneration
- Circulatory Disorders
- Cancer, Especially Colon, Breast, Uterine and Lung Cancer
Sitting Lowers the Life Expectancy
What do you get when you combine increased rates of obesity and a higher risk of chronic disease? You get an equation that equals a greater chance of premature mortality. According to the World Health Organization, a sedentary lifestyle is the fourth highest risk factor for death in the entire world. Yikes. If that isn’t bad enough here are few more quick statistics on the issue:
- A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that each hour you spend sitting, being physically inactive and engaging in activities such as television watching or scrolling through your phone results in twenty-two minutes taken off of your life.
- Another Australian study claims similar results with each hour equaling twenty-five minutes taken off of your life.
- Sitting for eight or more hours a day can increase your risk of dying in the next three years by 40%, and on average people who spend this much time sitting live five years less than more active people.
You might shrug your shoulders at this and think it is relatively inconsequential. However, when you consider that fact that smoking just one cigarette is said to take eleven minutes off of your life, and compare this to the statistics above, it helps to put in perspective just how serious the results of sedentary lifestyle can be.
There is Good News
As someone who spends a great deal of their day sitting and working in front of a computer, I can completely understand that this situation might feel hopeless. The good news is that it actually isn’t hopeless at all. True, thirty to sixty minutes of exercise has not been shown to be enough to negate the effects of hours spent sitting. However, the solution is a very simple one. You just have to move more. Each hour of your day that you can spend moving, rather than sitting, exponentially diminishes the negative consequences of sedentary living. How can you accomplish this, especially if you have a job or other life circumstances that require you to spend seemingly countless hours sitting? Here are a fifteen ways that you can get up, get moving and get healthy.
- Wear a pedometer and set a personal goal to take more steps each day until you reach somewhere between 10,000-12,000. Consider getting a pair of supportive walking shoes as an extra incentive.
- Take a quick break every hour and walk. This might be walking around your office, walking around your house or even pacing the living room a few times.
- If you are watching television, get up every time there is a commercial break. Walk to the bathroom, do a few stretches or go get a drink of water.
- If you work in an office environment, stop sending emails or texts for every single communication. Get up and walk to speak to someone in person.
- If you have to sit, consider sitting on an exercise ball. This requires you to move slightly and work to maintain balance and posture.
- Design your space for activity, not convenience. Just like you might set your alarm clock on the other side of the bedroom to actually make sure you get out of bed, you can to reorganize your spaces to encourage yourself to move more. Keep your phone out of reach so that you need to get up to answer it, keep reading lamps more than an arms distance from the sofa, spread out your kitchen, keep files in a cabinet that is away from your desk, etc.
- Consider using a standing workstation. If standing for long periods of time is hard on your back, invest in a great shock absorbing, comfort mat designed for people who are on their feet all day such as bank tellers and retail workers.
- Stroll through the grocery store, rather than racing right for what you need.
- Park as far away as possible from a store or destination.
- Take the stairs rather than the elevator. If the number of flights of stairs is too much, take the elevator halfway or get off one or two floors early and finish the rest of the journey in the stairwell.
- If you are stuck at your desk at least do a few stretches and move your legs.
- Make a habit of taking a quick stroll after your meals when you are feeling a boost of energy.
- Drink more water. Make sure that you actually have to get up to get more water (no fair keeping extra bottles at your desk), and then take advantage of the extra opportunities for getting in a few more steps with the extra trips to the bathroom that a well hydrated person requires.
- Get a dog. People who own dogs are naturally more active due to the fact that they spend more time walking and playing with their pets or even just getting up to let the dog in or out of the house.
- Offer your seat. Whether you are waiting at the doctor’s office, riding on the subway or waiting for your turn at the DMV, choose to stand and offer your seat to someone else.
The best approach to a healthy lifestyle is everything in moderation. The message here is not to avoid sitting altogether. Not only would that be impossible, but we all need time to rest and relax, which is just as important to your overall health as living an active lifestyle. This is about balance, and honoring your body. We were not designed to spend so much time sitting, and when we fight against nature, there are usually consequences. Making an effort to spend less time sitting can positively affect your health on so many levels. There are a few basic things you need to be your absolute healthiest. These are fresh air to breathe, clean water to drink, wholesome foods to eat, a reason to get up and move and the ability to rest and recover after a long day. You might find plenty of excuses to sit just a few minutes more, but not a single one of them outweighs the importance of your health. You can be healthier and live longer by taking just one step at a time.