This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but sitting is more harmful to the body than most people know. In fact, you might even say, sitting is the new smoking.
This article will demonstrate why sitting is one of the most harmful things a person can do and give you some tips to improve your health as it relates to sitting.
The Next Major Health Issue
Sitting is the new smoking and I predict it will become a major health issue in the future. Sitting slows your metabolism, causes muscle and tendons to shorten causing hip, back, and knee pain. It also restricts circulation of vital nutrients to the joints reducing their health and ability to move freely.
You Can’t Exercise Away Sitting All Day
Sitting for extended periods (1 hour or more) of time is one of the more harmful things a person can do to degrade their physical health. Whether you exercise frequently, or never, sitting is detrimental. In fact, running for an hour a day does not undo sitting for 8.
According to a 2011 article by Medical Coding and Billing, the average person sits for 9.3 hours every day. That is greater than the 7.7 hours we spend sleeping. Sitting increases the risk of death up to 40% for people who sit 6 or more hours a day compared to someone who sits less than 3. That could take 15 years off your life.
It is no surprise that sitting contributes – greatly – to the obesity epidemic. Obese people tend to sit for 2 ½ hours more than thin people. Between the years of 1980 and 2000, the number of people exercising, and their frequency and duration, stayed about the same, but sitting increased 8% and the obesity rate doubled. Certainly sitting cannot be blamed for the obesity rate, entirely – but it is a contributing factor.
Why Is Sitting So Bad?
Sitting contributes to the obesity rate by decreasing the metabolism of the body from the first moment a person sits. Sitting uses almost no energy. Chewing gum uses more. Walking requires 150% more energy than sitting. The harmful effects of sitting begin immediately, as soon as you sit:
- Electrical activity in the legs slows down
- Calorie burning drops to about 1 per minute
- Enzymes that help break down fat drop 90%
After 2 hours of sitting:
- HDL cholesterol (the good kind) drops 20%
After 24 hours of sitting:
- Insulin effectiveness drops 24% and risk of diabetes increases
Sitting is Bad for Back, Hips, and Knees
The article from Medical Coding and Billing goes on to say that people who watch 3 hours or more of TV a day are 64% more likely to die from heart disease. Granted, this is not conclusive proof that sitting is the culprit. It could very well be another variable such as the flickering light emitted from the TV, the type of furniture sat on, or any other factor. But, consider the fact that people who exercise regularly AND sit watching TV for 3 or more hours a day have as much body fat as people who don’t exercise at all. Each extra hour of watching TV increases your risk of death by 11%. Once again, the culprit is sitting, not TV per se, and sitting could be in front of a computer, or reading a book, or knitting.
Exponential Increase in Back and Hip Problems in Developing Countries
This problem is not limited to the United States. As reported by the Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research, developing countries have been adopting Western society’s culture, recreation, transportation, and work habits for several decades. To demonstrate the progress they have made the number of hip replacement surgeries has increased exponentially.
The reason for the increase in unhealthy hip joints is two-fold:
- While sitting, the hips are not moving. This decreases the ability for blood and synovial fluid to circulate to and through the joint, essentially starving it of oxygen and other nutrients.
- The time spent immobile reduces the range of motion, causing its range of comfortable movement to be reduced. This creates a Catch-22; hips are sore due to poor circulation so they are moved less, this further reduces the circulation. Before long the range of motion is limited, and working at increasing it is a painful and slow.
Think of the normal range of motion of the hips for most city people. They might bend the hips, under their own power, to sit and stand from a chair that is about knee high. In the exercise world, this is called a “squat”. However, from my experience, many people use their arms to help lift or lower themselves, decreasing the need for leg and hip strength. However, this squat move is one of the best things a person can do to keep their hips healthy.
Before Western society took hold in developing nations, people did not sit in chairs very often. They would stand or squat all the way down, with knees and hips bent so far their bum would touch the back of their legs. They would squat while talking, eating, relieving themselves, and even smoking. This was a great way to maintain the range of motion the hips are capable of.
Everyone Should Squat Daily
Squats are a great way to keep the joints lubricated and the muscles and tendons stretched. The reduction of the full range of motion limits its ability. Remember the adage, “Use it or lose it?” It is true. The body will lose what it doesn’t need – the ability to move, lift, bend, run — and maintain what it does need such as the ability to move, lift, bend, and run. If you show your body you are using one of its abilities, barring injury, you will be able to maintain a relatively fit body. If you show your body you don’t need to do a movement, you will cease to have the ability to do it.
An example of this is a joint, such as a finger, in a splint. If this finger stays immobilized for six weeks, and is then allowed to move freely, it does so with a lot of pain. But over time while pushing the movement to its limitations you can free that joint back to normal range of movement (ROM).
Surgery is dangerous
Another sad piece of research that further contributes to the scourge of sitting and the Western attitude on doing less, is a study reported in the Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research, said that people having joint surgery had up to 31 times the risk of a heart attack shortly afterward. That is pretty scary.
What can you do if you are forced to sit because of your job?
- Stand up at least once an hour – every 30 minutes would be best. Set an alarm. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, just stand up, and move through your hip, back and knee’s ranges of motion.
- Use a standing desk. I used to work in a corporate cubicle city and many people had standing desks. They said their back felt better and they had more energy throughout the day.
- Use a walking desk. I read a book named Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A.J. Jacobs. It was about a man who wanted to be the healthiest man in the world, so he did everything he could to become super healthy. One of the first things he did was set up a desk over a treadmill so he could walk and work. Most of his book was written in this manner.
- Walking, or spinning, meetings. If you have to meet with others, do what you can to make the meeting active: walking, riding stationary bikes, even standing would be better than sitting around a big table trying to stay awake after lunch.
- Stand while on phone. Every time you are on the phone, stand up. I used to do this and went a step further; I put a BOSU (what is this?) down and stood or did squats, or one-legged squats on it. The people on the phone rarely noticed.
- Drink lots of water. I drink about 16oz of water every hour. As you can imagine, I need to relieve myself nearly that often. This is a good thing. Water is good for you, and getting up every hour and moving around is good for your hips and back.
Not everybody is blessed with a good working, healthy body. But, there certainly are things that can be done to keep it in the best working order as possible. Sitting may not be quite as harmful as smoking, but if you don’t smoke, there is a good chance it is the worst thing you do to your health. This is why I say that sitting is the new smoking.
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Medical Coding and Billing; Sitting is Killing You; Staff, May 9, 2011; Retrieved from: http://www.medicalbillingandcoding.org/sitting-kills/
Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research, Yu-Shu L., Hung-Wen W., and Cheng-Kung C., September 15, 2008;