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Sitting Is Eating You Alive

Study found that physical activity outside of work hours didn’t protect sedentary workers from the negative effects of sitting.

Maja Nowak

29 July, 2020

You caught that train all right — barely, but you did it. Almost choked on your lungs and sweat-stained your favorite shirt, but you caught it. Now you can sprawl on the chair at your desk and recover from that dreadful experience. Browsing through emails and sipping black joe, you feel satisfaction. After all, you're not in such bad shape if you got to work on time. That has to mean something, right? Yes, that sitting is slowly eating your body.

But I Don't Sit All the Time!

Maybe. Maybe you're actually pretty active, hitting the gym in the morning and going to work only after sweating out a bucket of sweat? Sitting is still bad for you either way. Various health organizations recommend around 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity time per day. And if you did hit the gym in the morning, you've just scored a one-hour long quality gympocalypse time. So all signs suggest that you're on the safe side. But that's not exactly true. And thinking that one hour spent at the gym will stave off any looming ailments can actually invite them. Now let me tell you why.

Staying healthy is a process. Out of the whole twenty-four hours that make a day, can one hour make a difference? You're guessing right. Not really. Think about your body at the gym as a hot metal rod. You bring yourself to a boil, all muscles and tendons pliable and responsive. If you do a proper cooldown, good for you. But how often do you do a thorough cooldown and stretch? And still, one stretch a day might not keep the pain away.

So you settle back into your routine, which most likely involves long periods spent at the desk. Sitting.

If you're sitting for hours at a time, your body adapts to that position, forming into a firm structure as if you just dipped that hot metal rod in freezing water. In short, sitting is what you're training the better part of your day.

Let's say you spend six hours sitting (which I'm guessing is a very conservative estimate). It's six times more than you've spent working out at the gym. One hour is just 4% of the day. Six hours is 25% of the day. One quarter spent sitting! And that doesn't include the average time you spend relaxing on the couch watching TV or commuting to and from work.

Our lifestyles have looked like this for years now and that's not likely to change in the near future. Surely, this must have an effect on human physiology in the long run. Fellowes made a visualization of how humans might look in the future if we don't change our working habits:

Meet Emma, the effect of years spent sitting behind a desk.

And while this dreadful scenario probably won't happen (let's hope not), by sitting for hours at a time, we are seriously hurting our bodies. Yes, even those of us who work out frequently. If you let your body adapt to sitting too much, you can't expect to deliver your maximum performance during training - something you do only an hour a day. The only remedy to stop this is, of course, sitting less and introducing as many stretch-breaks as possible. You have to make your body pliable and adaptive.

Besides the physical effects, sitting can also take toll on our mental health. A study conducted at the University of Tasmania found that employees sitting six or more hours a day were more likely to report moderate distress. Their symptoms included anxiety and depression, which obviously have a huge impact on one's wellbeing. While we're trying to keep ourselves physically healthy, it's crucial to remember about our mental state too.

Breaking the Sitting Routine

Here are a few tips that help retain flexibility and springiness in the muscles and tendons:

  • Drink plenty of water (I do a diluted solution of an isotonic drink, just to increase absorption and get in some minerals). You can also add a pinch of salt to each glass you gulp down.
  • Do the couch stretch at least once a day.
  • Alternate your sitting position, e.g., put the ankle of the left leg on the knee of the right leg. You should be feeling a light stretch in the glutes and hams. Change legs after a while.
  • Get off at an earlier bus stop or train station and walk the rest of the way. Try to walk through a park or other green area. Adding even a short walk in nature to each afternoon will do miracles to your brain and body.
  • Don't seek excuses to sit, seek excuses to move — putter around during TV commercials, do some extra walking when going for lunch, park the car farther from the shop, etc.

I know the frown you have right now — the above is all common knowledge. But do you practice these well-known recommendations? Regularly? Because I've struggled repeatedly to follow these healthy habits.

We are designed to move. But until moving frequently doesn't become a routine, we're training to be Emma.


Reference

Kilpatrick, M., Sanderson, K., Blizzard, L., Teale, B., Venn, A. (2013), Cross-sectional associations between sitting at work and psychological distress: Reducing sitting time may benefit mental health. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 6(2), 103–109. doi:10.1016/j.mhpa.2013.06.004


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