Behind the wheel, at the desk, or in front of the TV, we spend an awful lot of hours just sitting stationary in one place. Day after day, the negative effects of sitting for long periods of time accumulate, and our health is put in serious jeopardy. Considering the silent mechanism behind sitting, and its devastating effect on our wellbeing, we are mostly oblivious to one of the biggest catastrophes in our habitual lifestyle. Today, we will ask two important questions – why is sitting dangerous, and how much sitting is too much?
Back in the day, we were being taught that a sizable serving of fruits and vegetables, along with moderate physical activity is just about enough to get us through life, pain free and generally healthy.
However, new studies point out to various risks to our health that exist despite our best efforts to pay attention to productive habits. Sitting for long periods of time, it turns out, is one such risk factor, which renders us defenseless to serious maladies irrespective whether or not we practice healthy eating or regular physical activity.
But why is sitting dangerous? We all know that a sedentary lifestyle amounts to no good, but is it really the case that all of those dancing classes and crossfit sessions are more or less useless in the face of prolonged sitting? This article will try to provide an answer, by looking not only at sitting time throughout the day observed as a total, but also sitting for long periods of time in uninterrupted sessions.
By the end of this piece, I hope, you will start to see that sitting is the new smoking, and you will try to make active steps in order to reduce the amount of time that you spend stationary.
Why is sitting dangerous?
Suppose that you are eating healthy and doing a bit of moderate physical activity every other day, in order to remain in decent shape. Then why is sitting dangerous, despite of these realities?
Well, it turns out that short and intense sessions of physical activity are not sufficient in deterring the negative health effects of sitting. A study published in Plos One concludes that even one hour of daily exercise is not enough as a preventative against negative health outcomes due to a sedentary lifestyle.
One hour of daily physical exercise cannot compensate the negative effects of inactivity on insulin level and plasma lipids if the rest of the day is spent sitting. Reducing inactivity by increasing the time spent walking/standing is more effective than one hour of physical exercise, when energy expenditure is kept constant.
What this means is that it is much better to spend few more hours being moderately active, rather than sitting for the bulk of your day and then exercising with full intensity for an hour.
But what exactly happens as a result of prolonged sitting? How is your body responding when you are sitting for long periods of time?
Sadly, the list of negative health outcomes is rather long and very serious.
Health effects of sitting
Different studies are piling up, all weighing in on the negative effects of sitting. From cardiovascular risks to diabetes, musculoskeletal pain and anxiety, findings point out to a predictable curve – the more time you spend sitting, the more your health suffers as a result.
Anxiety as a result of prolonged sitting
Though it might be a mere correlation, one systematic review published in BMC Public Health shows that as sitting behavior is more poorly regulated, the risk of anxiety increases.
The paper also suggests the possibility of other hypotheses explaining this link, such as the social withdrawal theory. It states that as people spend more time in solitude (wither working or in front of the TV), their social interactions are reduced, which in turn affects mental wellbeing.
Diabetes type 2 due to sitting
Sitting for too long can have measurable effects on postprandial insulin levels, which over time might lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.
One study published in the Journals of Gerontology has concluded that when we break prolonged sitting with short bouts of light walking, we can achieve clinically meaningful improvements in various markers related to metabolic health. One of these markers is the level of postprandial insulin which is greatly reduced when sitting sessions are interrupted rather than allowed to persist for hours on end.
When we trade standing up with sitting down 90% of the time, our back and hips start to succumb to the pressure of improper posture.
When babies develop their bodies, the most important advice is to leave them on the floor rather than hold them up. Sure, infants need love and care, and the occasional hug, but other than that it is very important to allow them enough space for proper development; when they are curled in our arms, their rate of development falters.
Much the same, we discover, is increasingly true for adults as well. As we spend more time sitting, our posture gets morphed in dangerous ways.
Additionally, the shoulders and the neck are frequently stiff and we suffer needlessly in chronic pain.
Deep vein thrombosis
When people sit stationary, for too long, the risk of blood clot formation increases exponentially; when these clots happen in the legs, they can travel to the lungs or heart, causing pulmonary embolism, heart attack or stroke, which may lead to serious complications and even death.
Increased blood pressure
Standing desks and walking support circulation. Too much sitting, on the other hand impairs healthy blood circulation, which in turn elevates your blood pressure.
Sitting can also prevent people from enjoying nature, which is a strong stress deterrent, therefore increasing the risk of elevated blood pressure. Mental health and cardiovascular disease often go hand in hand, and elevated blood pressure is one of the main culprits that feed on this cycle. So, in order to minimize the risk of heart disease, try minimizing the time you spend sitting.
How much sitting is too much?
We know that, overall, people who sit longer have an increased risk in total mortality. But how can one estimate what is appropriate and what is simply too much sitting?
Well, here are some rules of thumb:
- Aim for short breaks every half an hour or so
- Do at least one session of uninterrupted physical activity per day
- While intense exercise is great, it simply pushes you more towards additional sedentary behavior both prior and after
- Do light stretching between bouts of sitting
- Consider a standing desk, and try to alternate between sitting and standing
- Take walking meetings
- Try watching your series while driving a stationary bike (at least once per week)
- Compromise – if you sit too much at your desk, try cycling to work, and vice versa – if you drive long hours, try a standing desk
- Do as many steps per day as you can
- Take the stairs whenever you can
According to some statistics, adults in Singapore spent almost 2.5 hours daily, between 2018 and 2020, binge watching. So what should you do if you follow a similar habit? Well, in such an instance, consider the compromise suggested above. You can increase your commute time by taking up cycling, or you can add more daily walks, try a standing desk, or organize social occasions so that there is less sitting and more physical activity.
As for working, try making small breaks in order to go to the kitchen or bathroom, fill a glass of water, and take few sips. You can also do few stretches, or even lay down with your legs raised slightly above the ground, at around 6 inches.
Here is one of our videos, which shows both easy as well as complex ways of stretching. Pick few moves, and try to incorporate them in-between bouts of work sessions in front of the monitor.
Conclusion – Is sitting dangerous?
Even now, when you know why sitting is dangerous, do note that sitting is not a proper scarecrow all on its own. The length of time spend sitting, as well as the length of each session on the chair or sofa is the crucial ingredient here. The more time you spend sitting, the more likely it is to cause problems. If you must take only one point away from this article, let it be this – try to stand up and walk, and try to incorporate some light stretching exercises whenever you can. Use your legs whenever there is a chance, and favor less intense but longer physical activities as opposed to the alternative.
And how much sitting is too much? Well, as you try to minimize sitting for too long, just have in mind that having breaks from sitting is much more important than measuring the total time spend stationary. It is better to sit for two hours, if you stand up and take a small stretch and a walk every 30 minutes or so, than it is to sit for one hour uninterrupted.