Is sitting really the new smoking?
Take a moment to think about what a typical day looks like for you during the workweek. Now, how much of that time involves sitting? Probably a lot! You likely thought about how much time you spend sitting in front of your computer. Most of us also spend a significant amount of sitting time sitting while commuting, watching TV, reading, researching, socializing, etc… So how much of our days are really sedentary? The average American participates in 15.5hrs of ‘non-exercise’ time in a typical day (1), meaning sedentary. The surgeon general’s exercise recommendations for adults is 150min of moderate to vigorous exercise per week, meaning approximately 30min five times per week (1, 2). That then leaves us with about 8hrs for sleep. While I agree that it can be challenging some days to achieve 30min of exercise around work and other commitments, scientific evidence shows that despite reaching 150min of exercise per week, such exercise does not make us immune to the adverse effects of prolonged sitting (1-3).
In fact, it’s not sitting alone that’s harmful for our health, but rather the duration of time spent sitting without breaks that increases our risk for developing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, weight gain, and musculoskeletal conditions (1-4). So what’s considered a long duration? Researchers are still working on defining that more specifically, but studies have shown that glucose and insulin sensitivity become altered after just 20min of sitting – yikes!!(4) So when we think about sitting for multiple hours, which is the reality for many, it’s not only challenging on our bodies physically, but physiologically as well. Our bodies are built to participate in more than 30min of exercise a day, yet our modern lifestyles have moved us away from this with automated systems and technological advances. Our bodies are suffering as a result.
Prolonged sitting significantly impacts our musculoskeletal system. Low back, hip and neck pain are the most common complaints I hear from patients, and such complaints are often brought about and/or provoked by sedentary/sitting activities. The longer we sit the worse our postural alignment becomes. This is due to our hip flexors shortening the front of our hip, which in turn creates increased tension on the low back since our hip flexors attach to the last five vertebra of our spines. When this occurs for long periods of time, areas above and below the low back and pelvis begin to compensate as a result. This is where neck and upper back pain begin to creep in since our abdominals become underactive when we’re slouched over our computers and steering wheels. Now fast forward weeks, months, and years of this, and our bodies begin to adapt to this new normal. And while the body is very resilient and creative in developing ways to work around these less than optimal situations, this new alignment is less efficient and can only function for so long.
So how to we combat the side effects of sitting and sedentary activities and work on getting 30min of movement in our day? Here are a few easy tips that I recommend to help keep you moving more often:
- Set a timer on your phone, computer or smart watch to go off every 30min minutes. Use this alert to stand, stretch, and walk around your office for 1-2mins. Research shows that 1-2min breaks every 20-30min helps to reduce glucose and insulin intolerance that arise with prolonged sitting periods (4). Health apps on our devices can be helpful for tracking progress and accountability.
- Encourage yourself to get more steps in:
- Take the longer route and/or stairs to your next meeting
- Walk over to your co-workers desk to talk rather than sending an email, and if you need to meet with them about something see if you can make it a walk and talk type meeting to help you both get moving
- Choose to use the restroom that’s furthest away
- At the top of every hour, perform one exercise at your desk
- 20 squats or lunges
- 20 incline push ups on your desk
- Plank for 30sec
- Park your car farther away at work, the grocery store, etc..
- When you have a phone call or conference call, take it while going on a walk when possible. Studies show we get boosts in creativity for up to two hours after we exercise
- Listen to an audio book or podcast while going for a walk
- Enlist a friend to participate in some of these activities with you to help keep each other accountable
Like Einstein taught us about inertia: a body in motion stays in motion while a body at rest stays at rest…The more we start to incorporate movement into our day, the easier it becomes to keep that momentum going!
- Owen, Neville, Adrian Bauman, and Wendy Brown. “Too much sitting: a novel and important predictor of chronic disease risk?.” British journal of sports medicine2 (2009): 81-83.
- Owen, Neville, et al. “Too much sitting: the population-health science of sedentary behavior.” Exercise and sport sciences reviews3 (2010): 105.
- Van Uffelen, Jannique GZ, et al. “Occupational sitting and health risks: a systematic review.” American journal of preventive medicine4 (2010): 379-388.
- Benatti, Fabiana Braga, and Mathias Ried-Larsen. “The effects of breaking up prolonged sitting time: a review of experimental studies.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise10 (2015): 2053-2061.