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The Unsettling Truth About Sitting All Day

by Shannon Calderon on March 28, 2013

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Unhappy Sitters. Photo: National Postal Museum, Curatorial Photographic Collection/Flickr

I have some pretty serious info to share with you today. I don’t mean to be alarmist or to frighten you unduly, but the truth is, sitting all day is literally killing us. In recent years, doctors and scientists the world over have conducted studies on the effects of what they call “prolonged sitting,” and the results are arresting.

Think about the average office worker’s day: They commute to work, sitting. They spend four hours at their desks in the morning, sitting. They have an hour lunch break, sitting.  They wrap up their workday with four more hours at their desks, sitting. They commute home, sitting. They eat dinner, sitting. They watch a few hours of TV, sitting. That’s a whole lot of sedentary time! Does it sound uncomfortably similar to your own workday?

If so, I feel obligated to let you know just how terrible all that sitting is for your health. (Don’t worry, it’s not just you; I share the dangers-of-sitting speech with everyone I come across.  I mean, I chase people down the street if I have to. It’s that important.)

We can’t kid ourselves anymore. Repeated scientific, peer reviewed studies have shown that prolonged sitting is directly linked to troubling health issues, including a significantly increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, musculoskeletal disorders, depression, a variety of cancers, and disrupted metabolic functions (like the suddenly ubiquitous Metabolic Syndrome, now affecting 25% of the U.S. population). After reviewing 18 studies involving almost 800,000 people, researchers concluded that prolonged sitting, like the average workday example above, results in a 112% increase in the risk of developing diabetes, a 147% increase in the risk of heart disease, and a 49% greater risk of dying prematurely.

Here’s the real kicker. The negative effects of prolonged sitting apply to you even if you exercise regularly, and even if you are otherwise healthy. Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic notes that working out at the gym a few hours a week or getting exercise elsewhere does little to offset these health risks. So even if you eat well and go to the gym, your health is still compromised if you spend the rest of the day on your rump. Too much sitting is a problem distinct from and independent of exercise.

Why is this? Here’s where it gets particularly disturbing. Lots of bad things happen to us when we sit down for long periods of time. It starts with the near-total drop in the electrical muscle activity in our legs. This means that we burn only about one calorie per minute. Our ability to process insulin plunges, as does our ability to break down lipids and triglycerides. That’s why the risk of diabetes, metabolic disorder, and heart disease rises so rapidly and dramatically. All that fat and insulin just hangs out in our bloodstream. Long-term sitting also puts us at greater risk of blood clots, and therefore, pulmonary embolism. Eek!

The answer to this problem seems obvious: move more during work hours in order to break up that sitting time. At a minimum, be active for ten minutes of every hour. Stand when you’re on phone calls, walk to a colleague’s cube instead of emailing, and go for a quick walk during your break. Suggest stand-up or walking meetings, even if people look at you funny. This idea might seem strange to some, but an indoor smoking ban was strange 15 years ago, right? We need to adapt our lifestyles to scientific realities.

More and more companies, like Google, Facebook, Intel, and Chevron, along with smaller outfits like Wired, provide sit-stand desks for their employees. Studies show that the use of an adjustable height desk results in a significant decrease in neck, back, and shoulder pain, as well as an improvement in productivity, mood, and fatigue. The user experience is overwhelmingly positive. You can even add a treadmill to your workstation, allowing you to walk at a leisurely pace while still being able to type, mouse, and talk on the phone. We’ve all got treadmill desks here in the office, and can attest that they make for a productive, healthy work environment.

Whatever your workplace setup or budget allows for, it’s crucial to break up your sitting time. It’s no exaggeration to say that your health and quality of life depend on it.

Learn more about sit-stand desks at The Human Solution.

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Written by Shannon Calderon

Shannon Calderon

Shannon comes to THS from a background in writing and teaching. She’s lived and traveled all over the world, but is now a committed South Austinite, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She likes the things you might expect of a former English teacher, like reading, crosswords, tea, and cats. She also enjoys Charlie Kaufman movies, yoga, and being tall.

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