The Lifestyle that May be as Harmful as Smoking
With much of the workforce now behind a desk, doctors around the world are warning about the health effects of sitting for long periods of time. Considered "the new smoking" by some health experts, a 2012 study published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews showed that sitting all day for work or leisure has harmful effects on our cardiovascular and mental health while impacting our fitness ability. Let’s take a look at the dangers of sitting too much, and what we can do to reverse the damage.
How Sitting All Day Harms Your Health
How can something that everyone does naturally be so harmful for your health? While sitting isn’t inherently bad, it’s the amount of time that most of us spend doing it that is beginning to cause health issues. People with occupations like accountant or software engineer — people who are at their desk for most of the work day — have higher risks of negative sitting-related health issues compared to more active farmers and construction workers. Here is a more comprehensive explanation of why sitting too long is harmful to the body’s overall health:
If you’re sitting right now, take a look at your posture. Your hamstrings (the back of your legs) and glutes (the bottom) are completely inactive, which is weakening these muscles. Your hip flexors and core are also not doing much, and you might even be slouching or overextending your shoulder and neck muscles from using a computer mouse. Sitting, especially with poor posture, can weaken a number of major muscle groups, demanding more from surrounding muscle groups.
Increased Risk of Injury
Weak muscles, tight hips, and overworked surrounding muscles can put you at greater risk for injury. For example, if your hamstrings weaken and your quadriceps are taking over during your normal workout routine, this stress can build up over time and result in a pulled or strained muscle.
Think about how much you sit in a given day. You sit down in your car or on a bus to get to school or work, then you sit behind a desk for up to 8 hours, commute home, relax on the couch, and a few hours later head to bed where you lie down for up to 8 more hours. If you aren’t watching your diet and you aren’t getting enough physical activity, this can lead to weight gain.
Along these same lines, the lack of physical activity and potential weight gain can have a serious impact on your cardiovascular health too. A 2015 report published in Annals of Internal Medicine found that you’re more likely to develop preventable diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes if you spend much of your day sitting. This was found to be true even for those who exercised for an hour on a daily basis.
Your body isn’t the only thing that is negatively impacted from sitting. Studies show that your mental health is also at risk. One study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2013 found that office workers, or those sitting for prolonged periods, were more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety.
Ways to Combat the Sedentary Lifestyle
If you love your job, or quitting is just not an option, that’s okay! Keep working hard, because there are some easy things you can start doing today to reverse the damage from the sedentary lifestyle.
The 50 / 10 Rule
Set a timer on your phone or watch, and for every 50 minutes that you spend sitting, you should stand up, stretch, and walk around for 10 minutes. If you are stuck at your desk because you must be on the phone, then try incorporating movements at your desk such as a simple bodyweight squat or side twists.
Make Little Adjustments to be More Active
The overall idea is to get up and get your body moving more throughout the day. Physical activity isn’t limited to the gym. You can easily find other ways – no matter how small – to be more active. Try the following:
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
- Park further away from your destination
- Go for a walk during your lunch break (or at smaller intervals during work or school)
- Stand up, or do squats while doing things at home such as watching television
- Start your day with a walk around the block and some light stretching
Be Conscious of Calories
If you have a desk job, be aware of the number of calories your body needs and how many you’re eating. You can use an online calorie calculator to determine your current caloric needs based on gender, height, weight, and current physical activity level. From here, you can download an app such as MyFitnessPal to track your caloric intake throughout the day to stay within your recommended range.
Try Intermittent Fasting
If you want a way to keep your calories in check while supporting your cardiovascular health, consider intermittent fasting. This is a lifestyle in which you abstain from food for 16 hours per day, allowing yourself an 8-hour feeding window (as one example. There are multiple intermittent fasting schedules). Most people begin their fast at 8 p.m. and don’t have their first meal until 12 p.m. the following day. This will make it easier for you to avoid eating too much during work hours.
Use a Standing Desk
Given the harmful effects of sitting all day, many companies are offering employees the chance to use a standing desk. Shown to keep legs, glutes, and hip flexors strong while burning more calories, a standing desk is an excellent option for anyone who has to be at a desk for much of the day.
A 2012 study published in Preventing Chronic Disease demonstrated that a standing desk was able to lower the risk for cardiovascular disease and mental health issues. Using one boosted overall mood and productivity for employees.
With that said, it’s not advisable to rely entirely on a standing desk. If you’re standing all day, you can place too much stress on your feet, ankles, and knees. Some people also complain about lower back soreness. If you’re going to use a standing desk, be sure to maintain good posture – chest up, shoulders back, neutral gaze – and spend some time sitting between sessions to give your feet a break. You see, some sitting isn’t all bad. Remember, health is all about balance!