Most Americans sit for prolonged periods almost every day, from sitting at your desk at work, sitting in your car, or sitting on the couch in front of the TV. Unfortunately sitting for extended periods can have serious negative health consequences. According to a report published in Annals of Internal Medicine, more than half of the average person’s waking hours are spent sitting, and all of that sitting increases the risk of early death even in those who exercise regularly. So what are the negative effects of excess sitting, and how can you avoid them?
Negative Effects of Prolonged Sitting:
Sitting for extended periods of time has been linked to a slew of scary health problems, including an increased risk of diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression, obesity, potentially fatal blood clots, muscle strain, and back problems such as spinal stenosis and herniated discs. Some of the underlying reasons as to why sitting increases the risk of these health problems are clear, while others are not.
For example, prolonged sitting increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity partially because sitting is a sedentary behavior, which can lead to weight gain and increased fat storage. Sitting increases your risk of muscle strain and back problems because sitting increases pressure on your spine as well as potentially tweaking muscles from incorrect posture. Blood clots are more likely to develop because sitting decreases the blood flow through your legs. However, the underlying reasons why sitting and cancer and mental health problems are linked are still unclear.
What About Exercising? Does That Help?
Yes and no. Certain negative health effects of sitting can be counteracted through regular exercise, but not all of them. For example, muscle strain and inflexibility can be lessened by regular exercise and stretching even if prolonged sitting is part of your day. Also, the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease is lower in those who sit for prolonged periods but exercise regularly, relative to those who sit for prolonged periods and do not exercise (the lowest risk is associated with regular exercise plus less sitting). Other risks like certain cancers, spinal problems, and blood clots are not significantly reduced through exercise and stretching if long periods of sitting are part of the lifestyle.
So What Can I Do To Counteract These Negative Health Effects?
I’m glad you asked! There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of the negative health affects associated with extended periods of sitting.
Take sitting/standing breaks every 30 minutes. According to most studies, people who sat for less than 30 minutes at a time had the lowest risk of early death. Even just standing up to stretch or to walk to the bathroom or to get a drink of water can help stave off the negative effects of sitting for too long.
When you are sitting, use correct posture. When you do need to sit, using correct posture is helpful because it helps take excess pressure off of your spine, and engages important muscle groups. Using lumbar supports in your car and/or ergonomic seating at work and at home can also help. Check out this short video on sitting in a healthy way:
Sit on a yoga ball or sitting disk (also called a wiggle seat). Sitting on a wobbly or unstable surface can encourage you to sit up straight and engage your abdomen while seated.
Invest in a standing desk or a treadmill desk. A standing desk or treadmill desk can dramatically lower the time you spend sitting while at work or when working from home. There are lots of options for standing desks, including ready-made and DIY options. You can also find adjustable desks that allow you to switch between sitting and standing. Note: check whether your workplace will pay for this before you get one for yourself!
Take walking meetings or stand in your meetings. Take your meeting on the road and get your steps in while you get work in! Alternatively, standing in the back of the room at meetings, classes, trainings, etc. is often fine as long as you alert the leader to what you’re doing ahead of time (if you don’t feel like lecturing the leader about sitting, you can just say you have back or hip issues).
Be sure to exercise and stretch most days. Although exercise and stretching don’t negate all of the effects of sitting, it does help lower your risk on some of the effects of sitting. 150 minutes of exercise weekly is recommended by the American Heart Association.