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Sitting Uncomfortably? You should be.

Get the low down on sitting (no pun intended) and its effects- by physiotherapist Declan Halpin.

  • Sitting Uncomfortably? You should be.

Everyone knows we need to exercise, right? If you don’t know this, I worry for you. But the question is – do you get enough exercise? This, of course, depends on what we consider enough exercise. The American Physical Activity Guidelines (2016) ask us to do 120 minutes to 150 minutes of moderate physical activity in a seven day week.

Reflect for a second: Do you get this done? And more importantly, is this enough?

Lets think about it in an average American’s week – say, for example, the most famous American of them all: Homer Simpson. Homer Simpson gets up every day at 7am. He sits down and has his breakfast. He then sits in his car on the way to work, where he sits for 8 to 9 hours at a computer console. He then sits back in his car for another 30 minute drive home, before sitting down for his dinner with his family, and then sitting in front of the TV for the rest of the evening. Doesn’t sound great, does it?

Well, how about if I told you that Homer does a 60-minute walk twice a week around his neighbourhood, would that improve your opinion of his sedentary lifestyle? Sure, it is better that he does these walks, but it doesn’t take away from the huge amount of sitting and non-activity that he partakes in daily, and weekly. Here-in lies the problem!

In the modern day world we partake in incidental daily activity less and less. Our most popular forms of entertainment – the TV, cinema, professional sports watching, and videogames – all involve us sitting down! We sit down at home for meals, we sit down when we commute to work, and we definitely sit down at work! In fact, the average American worker sits for 8 hours a day in their work place!

However, all this doesn’t really matter, unless sitting is bad for you. Well, let me ask you another question – is smoking bad for you? Every educated person, from the age of eight upwards, knows that smoking is harmful for your health and should not be encouraged. Now, what if I told you that sitting is as bad for your health as smoking? Shocking, right? Unfortunately, we now know this to be true:

  • Statistically speaking, prolonged sitting (7 hours or more) every day is as likely to give you cardiovascular disease, as smoking 15-20 cigarettes a day is to give you cancer.
  • - American Cancer Society (2013)

More worryingly, according to the American Cancer Society, the negative effects of prolonged sitting on your health “cannot be undone by intermittent bouts of exercise.” In the same way that you cannot smoke twenty cigarettes and then go for a one mile run ‘to clear your lungs’, you cannot sit for eight hours a day, and then do a 30 minute gym session to avoid the negative impact on your health. Starting to sit uncomfortably?

So where do these findings come from? There have been a couple of big studies recently that have shed light on this ‘Sitting Disease.’ The first, in 2010, was published in the Journal of Epidemiology by Patel et al. They followed 123,000 Americans (male and female) for a period of 13 years, taking data on a whole host of subjects. Shockingly, they found that women that were sedentary for more than 6.5 hours a day, were 94% more likely to die of heart disease during the study, than those that sat for less than 3 hours. These effects were a little bit less pronounced in men, but still startling: 68% of men who sat for more than 6.5 hours a day would succumb to life ending cardiac disease than their more active counterparts. Possibly the most worrying part of these findings were that these risks were completely unrelated to how much exercise the subjects reported getting.

Another study, this time from the Brits, asked 4,560 adults to self-report their activity levels. Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by Chau et al. in 2013, they found that after controlling for sex, race, economic status, and activity level, prolonged sitting significantly increased a person’s risk for diabetes and heart disease. This increased risk was evident in those who sat for as little as four hours per day!

So what exactly is it about sitting that is so bad for us? Basically, if you are sitting down right now, everything from your rib cage down has gone into ‘metabolic shutdown.’ Below your diaphragm, your muscles have stopped working. Therefore, while your heart continues working to pump the blood around your system, you are using far less blood glucose and triglycerides. Persistently high levels of these floating around your body will eventually guarantee you either heart or circulatory disease.

Sitting uncomfortably now? Don’t worry, there are things we can do to stop the downward slide.

The first, and most obvious solution, is to Stand Up while at work. Researchers at the University of Chester found that by standing up for three hours a day (5 days a week, at work), subjects heart rates were found to be 10 beats per minute faster than those sitting in the same time. This is an improvement of about 50 calories burned an hour, or 750 extra calories burned in your working week. Whilst this might sound like much – over the course of the year, this works out to the equivalent of running 10 marathons over the year!

If your office currently doesn’t support a standing work environment, talk to your management about it. In ten years time, it will seem archaic to have desks in a corporate environment which cannot be raised to allow office workers to stand up while working. Think of how quickly the corporate environment got rid of ‘smoking areas’ once the true cost of smoking was realised! Until then, take regular breaks from sitting, implement stand up meetings, or have a ‘walking lunch’ with colleagues. At the very least – no more sitting on the MRT!

Good luck! Your body will thank you in the long term.

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About the Author

Declan is the Head of Physiotherapy at UFIT Singapore. He holds both a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science from the University of Limerick and an MSc in Physiotherapy from King’s College London. He is dedicated to helping his patients realise their potential, and returning all of them to optimal function in the shortest period of time, whether they’re an international athlete returning to competition, a patient recovering from surgery or a grandparent who wants to play with the grandchildren. He’s passionate about functional exercise rehabilitation, and firmly believes in the importance of exercise as both a form of treatment and prevention for many of the health issues facing modern day society.

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