We commute to work, spend eight hours at our office desks, and at the end of the day drive home or hunch over our tablets on the train. Then it’s time to slob out on the settee to binge on the latest box set or browse the internet for some shopping. And all of it’s done on our derrieres. In fact, statistics show that some of us sit, on average, for a staggering ten hours a day. And the harsh reality of resting on our rears for so long? It could be killing us.
Research links sitting for lengthy periods with a whole host of health problems. As well as leaving you at risk of poor posture and flexibility, lower back and joint pain, it’s associated with everything from high blood pressure to cardiovascular disease, obesity to type 2 diabetes and even an increased risk of cancer. In fact, a comprehensive review of studies on sedentary behaviour carried out by researchers from Loughborough University and the University of Leicester found that – compared with the shortest time spent sitting – the longest time spent sedentary was associated with a 90% increase in death from cardiovascular events, and a 49% increase in death due to any cause.
Who knew sitting could be so scary? “Being crammed into a chair all day long is as unnatural as eating all day long,” says Dr James Levine, author of ‘Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You’ (Palgrave Macmillan) and one of the first health experts to highlight the issue of “sitting disease”. “Humans were not designed to sit. For thousands of years, we hunted and grew food; we spent most of our lives upright and sat down in short batches only occasionally for a break. Now, however, we’ve converted from an ancient world of movers to a modern world of chair sloths. Sitters die sooner – for every hour you sit, two hours of your life walk away.”
Small wonder sitting has been dubbed the new smoking. And though you may think you’re pretty fit, you can’t get away scot-free with sitting for hours on end. Even if you do the recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise through the week (be it a run, a gym session or a brisk walk in the park), if you spend long periods of every day pretty much bottom-bound, you’re still classed as “sedentary” and at risk of the health outcomes.
Stand Up For Your Health?
So if sitting is the problem, could standing be the solution? In an attempt to combat the potential health problems facing office workers hunched at their desks all day, some forward- thinking companies have installed adjustable “standing” desks that allow users to switch from working sitting down to standing up. But while new studies by the University of Sydney have found that workers who use sit-stand desks are more energised, and research by Dr Levine has shown that standing office workers burn more calories than those sitting, the simple act of standing won’t solve all the health problems of our “still” lifestyle, says Katy Bowman a biomechanist and author of ‘Don’t Just Sit There’ (Lotus Publishing).
“If you stand there all day in one position you’ll be no better off than you were before… except you’ll be more tired, stiff and sore,” she says. “What’s the point of standing in a way that crushes your body in the same manner that sitting did?” The actual sitting (or standing) itself isn’t really the problem says Katy. “It’s the repetitive use of a single position that makes us ill,” she explains. “Muscles will adapt to repetitive positioning by changing their cellular makeup, which in turn leads to less joint range of motion.” This muscle and joint “stiffness” can lead to a stiffening of the arterial walls. The solution? Moving more, says Katy.
While health experts haven’t come up with an agreed “time limit” on how much we can safely sit each day, the government has issued recommendations that we should break up long periods of sitting time with short bouts of activity every 30 minutes.
When sitting for long periods the body essentially “shuts down” – so any movements will, in theory, help wake it up, give bodily functions a boost and engage muscles and bones.
Try setting a timer at your desk to remind you to get up and take a short walk (for one to two minutes) every half hour.
Make a habit of getting off the sofa during the TV ad breaks, stand or walk around every time you take a phone call or why not invest in a Fitbit or similar tech that monitors your movements and prompts you to move when you’re too inactive?
Stretching out of still positions is also really important to keep joints and muscles lengthened and lithe, says Jennifer Spies, a remedial massage and postural expert. “After time spent hunched forward at the computer, get up and open up your chest by doing backstroke motions with your arms for example,” she says.
If you’re stuck seated on the bus or in the car, you can still move. Do neck rolls, shoulder shrugs, march your feet on the spot to mobilise a stiff back and tone your legs, or try this energising exercise, suggests physiotherapist and Pilates instructor Julia Jackson. “Sit tall and picture your spine as a long spring that’s gently being pulled from the crown of your head up to the ceiling and from your tailbone down to the floor – count to ten as your body lengthens. Try to relax into this position, breathing easily as your feet support you.”
Improve Your Posture…
While we know we shouldn’t be sitting (or standing) still for too long, we might as well ensure that we do it well! And that means relearning how to have good posture – for as little compression and stress as possible. “I’d say that 95% of the patients I see are suffering from pain due to poor posture habits,” says Jennifer. “A lot of it is to do with the fact that we spend so much of our time worshipping our phones in the head-forward position, tilting our spine into a ‘C’ shape. When we finish with our screens we rarely restore our heads to the proper position.”
As far as good standing posture goes, we could do worse than to take a tip from the meerkat, says physiotherapist, Rosalind Ferry, author of ‘The Posture Pain Fix’: “This endearing little animal will remind you to lengthen your neck upwards and the rest of your spine downwards, while releasing your shoulders down and outwards,” she says. “Now soften your eyes and look ahead. We are so used to looking downwards that we unbalance our spines. Our head weighs between ten and 14 pounds, and that places a substantial burden on our neck muscles. To reduce this muscular tension we need to find a point of balance for the head, rather like a ball on a cue stick.”
“Make sure you sit to the back of the chair and find the neutral spine position,” says Rosalind. “Keep yourback straight and start swinging forwards and backwards, using your hips as a hinge. Stop when your shoulders are aligned over your sit bones. Imagine a string coming from the back of your neck, upwards through the crown of your head. Allow the rest of your spine to drop towards your tailbone, through to the floor. Breathe easily from your belly.”
Other activities that can help your posture include yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, Pilates and the Alexander Technique.