Are you aware of the dangers of sitting for prolonged periods of time?
How long do you reckon you spend seated each day?
In this blog we are going to take a look at why sitting, in particular sitting incorrectly and for prolonged periods, is not great for our health and wellbeing. And of course, what we might practically do about it.
But before we begin, would you like to know exactly how long you sit for?
Juststand.org has a ‘sitting time calculator’ which you can use to calculate this for yourself.
You can then check out your score, against the following thresholds, to determine what Juststand describe as your ‘risk for sitting disease’:
LOW risk indicates sitting less than 4 hours per day
MEDIUM risk indicates sitting 4 to 8 hours per day
HIGH risk indicates sitting 8 to 11 hours per day
VERY HIGH risk indicates sitting more than 11 hours per day
According to the NHS, we Brits sit for around 9 hours per day which puts us in the ‘HIGH risk’ category. It is also more than the majority of us sleep!
Yet this is perhaps a conservative estimate when you, well, sit and think about it.
If your job requires you to sit for prolonged periods – commuting, eating, watching tv, relaxing etc … it can soon add up to a lot of time spent on your derrière each day.
And then there is of course the 18+ covid months that have been which, according to an article by UK Active, has seen 42% of UK adults increasing their sitting time by an additional 14 hours a week.
What we should be aiming for is at least under 8 hours of sitting each day – to put us in the ‘MEDIUM risk’ category. Or even better under 4 hours – to put us in the ‘LOW risk’ category.
Statistics that appear to be supported by many of the health experts in this field and much of the research out there, some of which we will explore in this blog.
The dangers of prolonged sitting
One of the early links between a sedentary lifestyle and health was discovered by Jeremy Morris in the 1950’s.
Morris and colleagues examined the activity levels between different occupations. Most notably double decker bus drivers and conductors, as well as behind the counter postal workers and postmen.
What they found was that those whose roles required them to be sedentary experienced 50% more heart attacks than those whose roles required them to be naturally more active.
You can read more about the work of Jeremy Morris in many articles, including a 2009 piece in the Financial Times ‘the man who invented exercise’.
A later study by Emma Wilmott focussed more on just sitting, rather than overall levels of activity and inactivity.
Wilmott and colleagues research found that levels of sedentary behaviour were not only linked to an increased risk of heart disease, but also to an increased risk of diabetes and premature death.
Interestingly, the results were independent of individual exercise levels. Indicating that even if the recommended amount of regular exercise is undertaken, sitting can still have a detrimental impact on health.
If the increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death doesn’t grab your attention, there are seemingly an endless array of other issues – to entice you to your feet.
Let’s take a look at a not so lucky seven of them …
1. Muscular and Skeletal Issues
Have you ever got to the end of the day and thought, ‘what an earth have I done to my shoulders, neck, back, or hips etc’?
Too much time spent sitting can play havoc on our muscular and skeletal systems.
Not helped by the fact that when we are busy or stressed our pain receptors can switch off. This can result in our not being aware of tension, aches and pains building throughout the day. It is not until we start to relax and then … ‘ouch’.
Here are just 3 of many examples, of how sitting can impact the above-mentioned parts of the body, for you to ponder:
I Your head weighs about 5kgs and when you are constantly looking down at
something, for example a screen or a desk, this is essentially like having a 5kg weight
around the back of your neck.
Unsurprisingly, this puts a strain on your neck, shoulders and over time may also result
in your chest muscles shortening, shoulders rounding and back muscles weakening.
II Slouching in particular puts strain on your spinal discs which can lead to compression
and degeneration of the spine itself.
III Sitting can shorten hip flexors, weaken the glutes and the large leg muscles
compromising the body’s overall strength and stability.
2. Postural Challenges
The human body is designed to be upright, not rigid but upright, respecting our natural curves and alignment.
I call this positive posture and one that ultimately aims to put the least amount of strain on your muscles and joints, and allows the body to function more optimally.
Sitting, and particularly sitting in a position that the human body is not designed to do, can not only result in aches and pains but our muscular and skeletal systems adapting over time.
Years spent hunched over a desk, or the likes of, and we are likely to end up with a body that has adapted to hold us in a less than optimal ‘C’ shape.
3. Diminished Digestion
Sitting, particularly in a slouched position, compresses the stomach region which can result in a whole host of digestive issues.
Sluggish digestion, absorption and elimination, bloating, stomach cramps, heartburn, acid reflux and IBS may all be the result of, or aggravated by, how you sit and for how long.
4. Shallow Breathing
Slouching and holding the belly in are habits that can change the way we breathe.
Both limit the diaphragm muscle, the main muscle associated with breathing, from doing its job effectively. Add to this shortened and compressed chest and abdominal muscles and you have a recipe for shallow breathing.
Here not only are we disrupting the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Shallow breathing has been shown to increase heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels and reduce sleep quality.
Might sound rather obvious but when you sit for prolonged periods, you burn less calories.
Put this on repeat and you are likely to end up carrying a few more pounds than your more active counterparts.
According to the article ‘What to know about standing to burn calories’ in WebMD, people burn on average 80 calories per hour sitting, an extra 8 standing and 210 walking.
Another study, in the same article, showed that if you stand for 6 hours a day rather than sit you will burn an additional 54 calories. Might not sound like much but over a year this equates to around 5 and a half pounds of fat.
6. Mental Health
Whilst the previous points have centred around the physical body, the mind and body are of course in the same vessel.
A study conducted in Tasmania in 2010 used the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale to demonstrate an association between the amount of time spent sitting to the level of psychological distress in government workers. With the results suggesting that reducing occupational sitting may have positive impacts to mental health.
However, for me the connection between the way we sit and how we feel is a more primeval one.
When we are feeling tired, sad, anxious, or depressed we tend to sit in a slouched and protective posture.
When we are feeling energetic, happy, or positive we tend to sit in a more upright and open posture.
How we sit can be a reflection of the way we feel, and the same can happen in reverse. How we feel can be a reflection of how we are sitting.
Consider it a two-way street.
There are many reasons why headaches may arise, with sitting worth considering as a potential contender or contributing factor.
We have seen that tightness and tension, postural challenges, and limited breath are all symptoms of sitting, and these also have causal links to headaches.
Reduce your sitting time
Suffice to say that sitting, in particular sitting incorrectly and for prolonged periods, is not great for our health and wellbeing.
Yet, no matter how much sitting you currently do, it would be unrealistic to suggest that you change careers or overtly reshape your life to reduce your sitting time.
After all it is not lost on me that I am sitting down to write this blog, and have days that bring with them the opportunity to be more or less chained to my desk.
So, what can we practically do about it?
If you follow my blogs or have worked with me, you will know that I am all about integrating wellbeing in to daily life, regardless of your work or life shape.
Of course, if you are already experiencing negative impacts to your physical or mental health and wellbeing, as a result of sitting, I would recommend you seek the support of a medical professional.
For those of you that would simply like to integrate ways, to improve or reduce your sitting and hopefully ward off a few of the detrimental risks to your health and wellbeing along the way, we will next look at some thoughts and ideas to get you started.
Interrupt your sitting
One of the best things we can do to mitigate the risks of prolonged sitting is to interrupt it.
Below are 15 ways for you to consider building into your day that aim to do just that – to entice you to your feet more and to incorporate more movement.
Not everything listed will appeal to you or work with your chosen life shape. However, as you read through the list, perhaps jot down one or more that does hit the mark and you will commit to giving a go.
You might even like to pause and do one now?!
1. Set a timer for every hour or so and interrupt your sitting. Stand up and, if possible,
2. Utilise break times to incorporate more movement into your day.
3. Drink more water which, along with being good for hydration, is also likely to see you
take more natural breaks!
4. Every time you get a cuppa or go to the bathroom, build in a lap of your workplace,
home, or garden.
5. Stand up when you do specific tasks, such as making phone calls or reading
6. Consider utilising a standing desk, or improvise with a high piece of furniture, for part of
the day. In terms of how much of your desk day should be spent standing, 15 – 30
minutes out of each hour seems to be the general consensus.
7. Don’t skip aisles when you go to the shops or the supermarket. Walk up and down
each one or do a lap of the mall.
8. Take the stairs instead of the lift.
9. Stand up on the train or bus when using public transport, for instance during your daily
10. Walk where possible or get off public transport – park the car a stop or two early and
walk the remainder of the way.
11. Where appropriate, make some of your appointments or catch ups walking meetings.
12. Walk to a colleague’s workstation instead of emailing or calling them.
13. Build in active tasks and hobbies – walking groups, exercise classes, gardening,
playing games with your kids or pets, washing the car and housework etc.
14. Put some music on and have a dance break.
15. If budget allows, consider buying a watch that monitors your daily, preferably hourly,
activity. Whilst the recommended target is 10,000 steps per day, some devices also
set a 250 steps per hour target to encourage you to keep you moving.
Have a stretch
One of the things you can do whilst you are interrupting your sitting is to have a stretch and iron out a few kinks.
Barbre Ergonomics provide a free stretching poster that you might like to print out as a visual reminder to stop and stretch throughout the day.
Do a body scan
Whilst tension can be held anywhere in the body, there are a few places where we tend to hold it as a result of sitting. For example, the neck, shoulders, the hips, and the belly.
A body scan can be performed as part of a formal meditation practice, or you might simply like to take your attention to and relax these areas of your body. Along with anywhere else you tend to hold tension.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Or PMR is another effective way of releasing built up tension in the muscles and the body in general.
It works by our progressively moving through the body, tensing the muscles for a few seconds, and then relaxing them completely.
You can follow the below example or just progressively work your way up the body tensing and releasing your muscles along the way.
Preferably lie down on your back or if this is not possible sit on a chair instead.
Take a few moments to settle and connect to the breath.
Tense all the muscles of the legs, squeezing them as tightly as you can for a few seconds and then relax.
Hold the belly, chest, and back muscles in as tightly as you can for a few seconds and then relax.
Tense all the muscles of the arms, making a fist with the hands and then opening out the hands. Then relax.
Tense the shoulders up towards your ears. Then slowly relax.
Squeeze all the muscles of the face and relax.
Relax completely for a few moments.
How you sit is important
Ergonomics is essentially the science of designing activities and environments to match the capabilities of the human body. Matching the work with the worker.
The ergonomics of sitting provides guidelines on how to sit to maximise your comfort, safety, wellbeing, and efficiency.
Barbre Ergonomics also provides an Office Ergonomic Tips Poster that breaks down the steps for optimising your workstation and sitting position. You might also like to print this out and use it as a visual reminder.
In its most simplistic terms, ergonomics is inviting you to sit in a more positive posture. If you recall the human body is designed to be upright but not rigid, respecting our natural curves and alignment. This puts less strain on our muscles and joints, and allows the body to function more optimally.
Once you have learnt a few of the principles of ergonomics, you might simply like to recall (organically or by scheduling) the concept of ‘positive posture’ – a quick reminder to correct or prevent a few bad habits creeping in.
Whilst no amount of sitting ergonomically is going to mitigate against too much sitting, it will certainly help.
As will investing in a good ergonomic chair, particularly if you are required to regularly utilise a desk for your work or home activities.
Utilise the Breath
Shallow breathing can be an unwanted companion of sitting.
Deep abdominal breathing is essentially the opposite to shallow breathing and our optimal way of breathing.
Here’s how to do it:
Sitting, standing, or lying down with a lengthened spine, relaxed shoulders, and face.
Gaze to one point or if possible close your eyes.
Place your hands on your belly so that your middle fingers are touching.
Inhale slowly through the nose noticing how the belly rises and the fingers separate.
Exhale slowly through the nose noticing how the belly deflates and the fingers come back together.
Work to expand the inhale and exhale with each cycle, without force or strain.
Aim to do 5 – 10 rounds, or more.
The human body is designed to move, and sitting for prolonged periods is not good for us.
Whilst we may instinctively know this, opportunities to sit in the modern world seem to be infinite and many of us are sitting past the point of healthy.
This blog takes a practical look at the impacts of sitting, in particular sitting incorrectly and for prolonged periods, and what you might practically do about it.
I hope you find it useful and are able to implement a few practical tools and techniques in to your daily life, that support you in warding off the potential detrimental impacts to the body and mind.