Everyone knows that being sedentary is bad for your health. It’s not the act of sitting itself that will kill you, but the repercussions of moving too little. But, few individuals know just how bad it can really be, or the cascade of problems that happen to your body from head to toe when we live a sedentary lifestyle – whether at a desk, in a car or tv binging on the couch. According to the Mayo Clinic, analysis of 13 studies concluded that, “sitting time and activity levels found in those who sat for more than 8 hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to the risks of dying posed by obesity and smoking.”
That’s terrible news given that the average American adult sits more than at any other time in history. Sedentary jobs have increased 83% since 1950 according to the American Heart Association. And, Johns Hopkins contends that, “Physically active jobs now make up less than 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, down from roughly half of jobs in 1960.”
For the typical person, more than half of their day is spent sitting. The normal office worker sits a shocking 15 hours every single day. And people who have long commutes, even more. This is especially troubling given that research indicates too much sitting offset health benefits of working out.
Further, by sitting for long periods of time, we become at greater risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke and heart disease – all of which contribute to brain troubles as we age. In fact, people with the most sedentary lifestyles are more than twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease than their active peers. And a 2011 study concluded that insulin responses declined after just one day of prolonged sitting, increasing the likelihood of developing diabetes.
While the most common injuries occur in the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the neck and back, the negative impact of a sedentary lifestyle can be problematic head to toe. Here’s what you need to know about top-down potential damage.
Head: The more one sits, the thinner regions of the brain associated with memory tend to be. Human brains need a constant supply of blood and oxygen to function properly. And movement helps circulate a fresh supply to keep the brain performing in peak condition. By sitting for long periods of time, our blood circulation slows, and so too does our brain function. This can lead to lowered cognition and long-term effects for aging brains, but increased rates of depression and anxiety. Not only from being in a sedentary environment, but the sheer lack of benefits that come from being physically active.
Neck: When using computers, tablets and phones, we crane our necks in awkward positions, often leaning into the screen. This is especially true if one sits at a desk for hours at a time. This puts unnatural stress on vertebrae, leading to pain and even worse posture as we compensate for that pain.
Shoulders: Being seated while typing – particularly slouching – can put significant stress on your shoulders. Pain in the trapezius area is not uncommon for those who sit for long periods of time and extend their arms for driving or typing.
Back: Poor posture while sitting compresses spinal disks, often leading to chronic back pain and worse, premature degeneration of discs. It also increases the likelihood of getting a herniated disk due to the hardening of collagen that supports ligaments and tendons. The way we sit – including the way we shift our weight – also puts pressure on the ischial tuberosity (the pelvic bone you sit on) causing pain and in some cases bursitis. Because spines that are inactive become inflexible, they are also more likely to get injured doing minimal tasks.
Abdomen: Sitting means that your muscles are resting. This is particularly true for abdominal muscles when slumped in a chair. Moving, standing, and even sitting with a straight back can do wonders for engaging abs. When not flexed, fat accumulation and muscle deterioration occur around the front and sides of the waist.
Hips: Sitting means that you extend your hip flexors less often, causing them over time to shorten. This can limit your range of motion. Some research even suggests that this is a primary influence on falls in our aging population.
Glutes and Legs: Use it or lose it is the motto. Your most powerful muscles must get used to be maintained; otherwise they atrophy. Going long periods of time without moving means that blood circulation slows, causing everything from swollen legs to varicose veins to the more problematic deep vein thrombosis.
Bones: Osteoporosis is often thought of as a problem for the elderly. A weakening of the bones that leads to falls and easily obtained fractures. However, research suggests that the average age of onset for osteoporosis is decreasing, and the number of hip fractures is increasing directly related to increased hours of sitting per day.
What Can You Do?
Although everyday non-exercise activities like walking, standing and fidgeting burn calories, that energy expenditure – known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) – is not enough to offset the harm done by a sedentary lifestyle.
Experts recommend spending time each day doing physical activity, particularly during the day, inside the work environment. Taking frequent breaks to move are important during any work period of sedentary behavior. The Mayo Clinic suggests daily activities such as getting up every 30 minutes, standing while doing a call or talking with colleagues, and even standing for periods of time while watching television.
There are easy-to-find desk-based exercises that can be done for those in an office for long periods of time, and many online videos of leg stretches for people who sit all day. Additionally, neck and back pain can be alleviated using a series of ergonomic tips for sitting posture and screen placement.