Is Sitting The New Smoking?
I hope you’re sitting down for this one folks.. or maybe not, because it appears that your chair is out to get you!
Researchers have found that sitting, something we all do on a daily basis and which the majority of us spend 80% or more of our working day doing could kill us faster than smoking will. Statistics from an Australian study released in the LA Times Feature which feature this news indicate that an hour of sitting in front of the TV cuts around 22 minutes from our lives.
That’s: 1 hour of sitting cuts 22 minutes from our lives – extraordinary!
These results have been contrasted with smoking which is estimated to shorten lifespan by approximately 11 minutes per cigarette smoked. If you sit AND you smoke, well you are in deep trouble.
You might be wondering how sitting can be so bad for us. Is it really such a concern?
In a word, yes.
The health problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle aren’t exactly breaking news, however this latest research has brought additional and necessary recognition to the issue. Although being a couch potato or a desk jockey is socially acceptable (unlike smoking), it doesn’t mean it is good for us. For starters, sitting for extended periods means you are less physically active, which in turn is linked with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even death.
In fact, a study published in the journal Diabetologia in November 2012 analyzed the results of 18 studies with a total of nearly 800,000 participants. When comparing people who spent the most time sitting with those who spent the least time, researchers found increases in the risks of diabetes (112%), cardiovascular events (147%), death from cardiovascular causes (90%) and death from all causes (49%).
Movement and muscle contraction is required for healthy blood and lymphatic circulation so chronic sitting will contribute to blood stagnation and increased toxic buildup. Sitting is also linked with higher body weight and obesity as minimal amounts of energy are burnt when we are sedentary. Some research even suggests that mechanically, sitting puts more pressure on our fat cells causing the common middle-age spread in weight deposition. The core of the problem is this – our bodies are designed for a hunter and gatherer lifestyle, to be physically active and use up energy while sourcing food before sitting down to eat it. Instead, most of us are constantly fueling our bodies with calorie-rich and nutrient-deplete food while simultaneously not using any of that energy. Consequently, the energy ends up getting stored as fat and causes an array of inflammatory problems throughout the entire body.
The Musculoskeletal system is by no means immune to this inflammation or to the effects of prolonged sitting. Most musculoskeletal conditions are driven by inflammation, which is then exacerbated by pro-inflammatory dietary choices central to the Western way of eating. Sitting for extended periods disrupts musculoskeletal health in a structural sense too, as the bones and muscles required for bearing body weight and maintaining postural stability are no longer required to engage in some of their major functions. We quite literally become “lazy bums” as our gluteal muscles weaken through inactivity, and the hip flexor and abdominal muscles become chronically shortened and compressed due to the bent-hip and rounded-spine position we assume when we sit.
The upper body is not spared either. Chronic sitting at a desk or in the car means that the arms are extended in front of the torso, encouraging a rounded shoulder position. The neck and head must also adjust to keep the eyes aligned with the object of focus (eg. computer screen or road) which causes excessive arching of the neck. As a result of these effects on the musculoskeletal system, prolonged sitting will often lead to chronic muscle tension and pain in the neck, shoulders, lower back, hips and even knees and feet in some cases.
So, how can you care for your wellbeing and musculoskeletal health when you’re stuck at a desk all day?
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that short stints of exercise before and/or after work aren’t the sole answer to this problem.
Professor Adrian Bauman of Sydney University’s School of Public Health states, “Going for a run or walking the dog doesn’t counter inactivity. It’s about total energy expenditure across the whole day. It appears that what is critical and maybe even more important than going to the gym, is breaking up that sitting time.”
Installing a treadmill or exercise-bike desk so you can be active all day at your work station is one of the suggested solutions to the sitting problem. In terms of practicality, I’m not so sure. What you can do is continue to exercise before and/or after work as well as breaking up your sitting time during the day with short walks. One study found that just 2 minutes of walking every 20 minutes improves glucose metabolism, a process disrupted by lengthy stints of sitting.
Care for your back by maintaining a good posture and stretching daily.
Look into changing your workspace so you are able to stand for most, or at least part of your work day. If you do have to sit at a desk, sitting correctly is essential so use a chair with good back support and armrests, which can reduce the pressure on your back. Keep your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent. If you tend to slouch while sitting, try a back support pillow like Dentons Back Support Cushion to encourage good posture without causing discomfort. Back braces like those available in The Spinal Centre Store can also help to support good posture and ease pressure on the back. One of our most popular braces is the Bauerfeind LumboLoc.
Not sure how to stretch properly? Find out in our Free Basic Stretch Program.
Stay hydrated! This is an important one – adequate hydration helps to keep your circulation and natural filtering systems (lymphatics) working when they slow down due to physical activity. Fill up on water, herbal teas or lemon water – skip any soft drinks and limit caffeine.
Finally, if you aren’t already seeing a Neuro-musculoskeletal specialist, now is a great time to book in to see one. A Neuro-musculoskeletal specialist can help to improve your spinal alignment, and thereby enhance the health of your entire musculoskeletal and nervous systems.
Price, J. 2010, Corrective Exercise For Prolonged Static-Posture Damage, IDEA Fitness Journal
Wilmot, E.G. 2012, Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis, Diabetologia, Vol. 55(11)
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