For many people, work means hours and hours of sitting, with a few pauses scattered throughout the day for a walk around the block or even down the hall. We sit and drive to work; we sit at work; we sit and go home, get dinner ready and then sit and decompress watching TV (often 3-5 hours). Alternatively, we may take the kids to dance or hockey, where we sit and wait for them. There may be some slight variations to the routine, but we are doing a lot of sitting when it comes down to it. On average, sedentary behaviour accounts for 77% of a person's waking hours or the equivalent of more than 12 hours per day.
While it's easy to dismiss this as a routine part of adult life, it is becoming a growing concern among researchers. Studies suggest that spending hours in a chair can cause all kinds of damage to your body and even shorten your lifespan. According to the Annals of Internal Medicine study published in 2017, it isn't just the amount of time spent sitting but also how sitting time is accumulated during the day that can affect the risk of early death.
So what has been attributed to prolonged sitting or sedentary behaviour?
- It can lead to varicose veins. If your lower legs and feet get tired, swollen, and achy, you could be experiencing blood and fluid pooling in those areas after a long period of sitting. This puts added pressure on your veins. They could swell, twist, or bulge -- what we know as varicose veins. You may also see spider veins and bundles of broken blood vessels nearby. They usually aren't severe, but they can ache.
- You could get a DVT. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a clot that forms in your leg, often because you sit still for too long. It can be severe if the clot breaks free and lodges in your lung. You might notice swelling and pain, but some people have no symptoms. That's why it's a good idea to break up prolonged sitting sessions by walking every 30 minutes or wearing elasticized compression stockings 15 to 20 or even 20 to 30 mm Hg.
- It is terrible for your heart. It's clear that sitting—like a lack of physical activity in general—is a contributing factor in many cases of cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in both men and women. It's an independent contributor and how much physical activity you are getting. Other considerations in heart health are body mass index and waist circumference—in both cases, the numbers will go up the longer you sit.
- You will offset all that exercise. The effects of too much sitting are hard to counter with exercise. Even if you work out 7 hours a week -- for more than the suggested 2-3 hours -- you can't reverse the effects of sitting 7 hours at a time. Don't throw away all that hard work at the gym by hitting the couch for the rest of the day. Keep moving!
- Your odds of developing diabetes increase. Yup, you're more likely to have it if you sit all day. And it isn't only because you burn fewer calories. It's the actual sitting that seems to do it. Some studies show an association between prolonged sitting and weight gain—and a strong link with diabetes, says Wajahat Mehal, MD, director of the Yale Medicine Metabolic Health & Weight Loss Program. It isn't clear why, but doctors think sitting may change how your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that helps burn sugar and carbs for energy. One explanation may be that when large muscles, like those of the legs and arms, are inactive, they need less fuel. This, in turn, causes blood sugar levels to rise, increasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
- It can contribute to cancer. Sitting at work and a sedentary lifestyle, in general, both appear to be independent contributors to cancer, just like overeating red meat or smoking, says Ph.D., co-director of the Smilow Cancer Genetics & Prevention Program and medical director of the Colorectal Cancer Prevention Program. Do as much of your job standing as possible and move beyond that as much as possible. Extra weight is a cancer risk, and standing burns twice the calories as sitting.
- It plays havoc on your back. The seated position puts enormous stress on your back muscles, neck, and spine. When we sit at our computers, we often slouch, craning our necks forward, which, over time, can lead to persistent postural misalignment. Sitting can also lead to overall deconditioning, early muscle fatigue, weakened core stabilizers, and tightening of the hip flexors, resulting in increased stress on your low back and reduced spine flexibility. You can look for an ergonomic chair -- that means it'll be the right height and support your back in the proper spots. But no matter how comfortable you get, your back still won't like a long sitting session. If a standing desk is not an option, try to get up every 30 minutes to move and stretch. Instead of emailing your co-worker down the hall, walk over there. You watch TV at home, taking standing, walking, and stretching breaks during commercials.
- You will hurt more. Sitting can also increase pain. Even if you're reasonably active, hours of sitting—whether reading a book, working on the computer, or watching TV—tighten the hip flexor and hamstring muscles and stiffen the joints themselves. Overly tight hip flexors and hamstrings affect gait and balance, making activities like walking harder and perhaps even setting you up for a fall.
It may be hard to make yourself get up and move when you're in pain. You don't have to work out like an Olympian when a comfortable 15-12 minute walk is done regularly throughout the day, and the week will accomplish a lot. We now know that working more movement into your day can help stop the adverse effects of uninterrupted sitting and help maintain a healthier you.
The key is to foster and promote a healthy lifestyle in general. This includes regular physical exercise or movement, not smoking, minimizing alcohol and meat, being well hydrated and eating various fruits and vegetables daily.