Why Sitting All Day is Killing You (And What You Can Do About It)

It seems like a new scientific study about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle — particularly jobs that require sitting for long periods of time — comes out every week.

Frankly, it’s not hard to see why, and it’s not uncommon to hear desk workers daydream out loud about getting a “more active job.” And who can forget the classic comedy “Office Space,” in which the chronically unhappy desk jockey finally ditches his office job for a career in construction so that he can work outside and have a more active, less frustrating job experience. (Though, to be fair, his office environment would have a nightmare even if he didn’t have to sit all day.)

Oceans of Evidence Against Sitting

Men’s Health magazine examined the dangers of sitting in a feature story way back in 2013 when the subject first started to get attention, and shared some frightening statistics:

Men who regularly sit for more than six hours a day are 20% more likely to die over a given period, compared to those who sit for just three. Now consider that the average man spends 9.3 hours a day sitting down — far outweighing the 7.7 hours he spends asleep.

If you have a desk job, you’re twice as likely to contract cardiovascular disease than people with standing jobs. You’re also more likely to develop colon cancer and obesity. Your risk of diabetes increases by a staggering 112%, according to one study.

The gloom and doom don’t end there. The danger of chronic sitting has become a very hot topic, both in the media and in the scientific community. In September 2014, Mercola’s Peak Fitness blog said this:

There are now over 10,000 studies showing that chronic sitting — at work, commuting, and watching TV at night — significantly impacts your cardiovascular and metabolic function.

For example, one 2012 meta-analysis found that those who sat for the longest periods of time on a daily basis were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sat the least.

Researchers have even discovered that prolonged sitting damages our mental health:

Another recent study found that women who sat for more than seven hours a day had a 47 percent higher risk of depression than women who sat for four hours or less per day.

And yet another study, this one conducted over the course of 12 years, observed that women had a “12 percent increased chance of dying from nearly any health condition if they sat for 11 hours or more each day.”

One final nail in the coffin: getting enough exercise doesn’t counteract the ill effects of prolonged sitting, so even if you dutifully hit the gym after you leave the office every day, it won’t make much of a difference in the long term if you’re in your chair for a solid eight hours before that. Sitting itself is the villain.

The Good News: We Can Fix Our Bad Habits

We’re not victims. We make conscious choices that lead to prolonged inactivity.

The British Heart Foundation and Get Britain Standing did studies on how bad Western sedentary habits can get at work. Their study found that “45% of women and 37% of men [say] they spend less than 30 minutes a day walking round at work…two fifths of office workers are so tied to their desks that they’ve confessed to emailing someone right next to them, [and] over half regularly eat lunch at their desk.”

The good news? It’s not hard to fix the problem, and the tide is turning. More and more workplaces are realizing the benefits of less sedentary employees, both in terms of health and productivity. Even some schools are jumping on the trend and finding that children who stand instead of sit seem to have better attention spans.

If your workplace isn’t among the progressive few who have made standing or adjustable desks a standard feature, there are a few things you can do on your own to combat the ill effects of sitting. Do small, quick workouts in your desk space throughout the day (get up and move at least once every hour) to create a habit of exercise instead of inactivity. IJ Review lists some great examples of how to incorporate workouts into work:

  • When you’re on a conference call on speaker or if you wear a headset telephone, do exercises (push-ups, sit-ups) as you listen (assuming you don’t have to talk too much).
  • Ditch the chair. Do squats as you work (or during a break) instead of sitting in front of your desk station.
  • Chair lifts. If you don’t use a rolling chair, or if you do and can lock its wheels, you can turn it into a training device. Sit on the floor in front of your chair, place your hands on the seat as you sit with your back against it, and do lifts. Or use the chair to do incline push-ups to work different muscle groups in your upper body.

Probably the best option of all is to come up with a way to incorporate more standing into your working life, since you burn up to 40% more calories that way than when you’re sitting. Not only that, you’re much more likely to stretch and move around when you’re standing, and your posture will almost certainly improve. You can purchase elevated desk stations from companies like Ergotron and VARIDESK. Stand-up desks make it easy, comfortable, and even fun to work. If those are out of your price range, simply stacking books or using a small end table on top of your normal desk will do the trick.

Ditch the sitting, and turn your work days into gym days. Your body will thank you for it.

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