In today’s technologically driven society, people are spending a lot more time sitting down – at home, at work and while travelling.
According to a 2013 survey commissioned by Ergotron, Americans are sitting an average of 13 hours a day and sleeping an average of 8 hours. This results in a sedentary position for about 21 hours a day.
Any kind of extended sitting, whether it is while watching television, behind a desk at work or behind the wheel, is simply harmful for your health. In fact, health experts are saying that “sitting is the new smoking”.
A 2012 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reports that prolonged sitting is a risk factor for all-cause mortality, independent of physical activity.
This study even states that public health programs should focus on reducing sitting time in addition to increasing physical activity levels.
A few years later in 2015, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine also shed light on the fact that prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with adverse health outcomes regardless of physical activity.
In fact, a 2012 study published in BMJ Open suggests that by reducing sedentary behaviors, such as sitting and television viewing, may have the potential to increase life expectancy in the U.S.
Here is why sitting for too long is dangerous for your health.
1. More Belly Fat
There is a strong connection between a sedentary lifestyle and an increase in body fat, especially around the waist. If you do not move around or exercise more often, your body will not be able to burn fat.
A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Physiology – Cell Physiology reports that moving and exercising help the muscles release molecules, such as lipoprotein lipase.
These molecules play a key role in processing the fats and sugars that you consume. When you sit for prolonged periods, the fats and sugars are not processed properly, leading to fat accumulating in the abdominal region.
In fact, an increase in waist circumference is far more dangerous than overall body weight. Belly fat increases the risk of chronic health issues like heart disease, strokes, diabetes, cancer and early mortality. Thus, reducing belly fat is always a significant benefit to one’s health.
2. Heart Disease
Prolonged sitting also has a negative effect on internal organs, especially your heart. Sitting in the same place for hours leads to poor blood flow to all body parts, including your heart.
Poor blood flow allows fats and plaque to easily clog your heart, which in turn leads to high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and cardiovascular disease.
A 2010 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reports that sedentary behaviors increase men’s risk of dying from a cardiovascular disease. In fact, people who sit more have a 82 percent higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.
Another study published in Current Opinion in Cardiology in 2011 says that total sedentary time is highly associated with several cardiovascular risk factors, whereas breaking up sedentary time is beneficially associated.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension suggests that metabolic changes linked to prolonged sitting could be responsible for the development of cardiovascular disease.
3. Back and Neck Pain
Spending most of the time in a seated position, and with poor posture, is simply bad for your back and neck. The very act of sitting puts more pressure on the spine and compresses the disks in your spine. This can lead to premature degeneration, which results in chronic pain.
Prolonged sitting can make muscles more likely to pull, cramp or strain when stretched suddenly. It can also cause pain in the muscles in your back and neck.
Sitting with poor posture can be particularly bad for your lower back. A 2007 study published in the European Spine Journal reports that sitting by itself does not show an increased association with lower back pain.
However, sitting in combination with other co-exposures, such as whole body vibration and awkward posture, does increase the risk.
According to a 2010 article by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, prolonged sitting causes damage to the muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments, affecting the neck and lower back regions.
4. Unhealthy Blood Sugar Levels
People who spend more time sitting and lead a sedentary lifestyle are at an increased risk of diabetes. More sedentary time is independently associated with insulin resistance, diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance.
Plus, prolonged sitting can make your pancreas produce more insulin, which can lead to diabetes.
A 2007 study published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology reports that physical inactivity was associated with the development of insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, increased blood pressure and impaired microvascular function in healthy volunteers.
A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity suggests that higher volumes of sitting time are significantly associated with diabetes and overall chronic disease, independent of physical activity and other potentially confounding factors.
A Diabetes Care report in 2013 says that interrupting sitting time with short bouts of light- or moderate-intensity walking can lower postprandial glucose and insulin levels in obese people.
5. Higher Cancer Risk
Sedentary behavior is associated with increased colorectal, lung, uterine, endometrial, ovarian, colon and prostate cancer risk.
A number of factors play a key role between sedentary behavior and increased cancer risk. For instance, obesity is a major factor for multiple cancers.
Plus, sitting after meals is related to higher blood sugar levels, which in turn increases the risk of colon cancer.
A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that long-term sedentary work may increase the risk of distal colon cancer and rectal cancer.
It is highly recommended to take regular breaks, especially if you have to sit in the same position for long hours.
6. Mental Health Issues
Sitting all day behind a desk is not good for your mental health as well.
Prolonged sitting affects the flow of blood and oxygen around your brain, which can affect your brain function. Over time, your brain can become foggy and you may be unable to focus clearly on even the most fundamental tasks.
On the other hand, when you move around, more fresh blood and oxygen reach the brain, which triggers the release of brain and mood-enhancing chemicals.
A 2013 study published in BMC Public Health indicated that in the multi-ethnic Asian society of Singapore, a high level of sedentary behavior was independently associated with psychological distress.
Two years later, another study published in the same journal further confirms the association between sedentary behavior and risk of anxiety.
7. Weak Legs and Glutes
If you have a habit of doing your desk job for hours without taking any breaks, your legs and glutes are going to suffer.
When your leg muscles are not used for hours, the muscle fibers tend to break down. This occurrence is known as muscle atrophy and can make your leg muscles weak over time. Sitting can also impact the mobility of your hips and the strength of your glutes.
Weak legs and glutes affect your stability when you stand or walk around. This increases the risk of falls.
It is important to use the muscles to maintain their strength and flexibility. To reverse the effects of extended sitting, take frequent stretching and exercise breaks throughout the course of your day.
8. Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
Sitting for long periods of time, including when driving, working at your desktop or flying, is one of the risk factors for deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
DVT occurs when a blood clot (thrombus) forms in one or more of the deep veins in your body, usually in your legs. This can cause a lot of pain.
When your legs remain unused for hours, calf muscles don’t contract. This contributes to poor circulation which in turn increases the risk of blood clots forming as well as DVT.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Short Reports found that jobs encompassing prolonged sitting in cramped positions increase the risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE). VTE is a disease that includes both DVT and pulmonary embolism (PE).
As DVT can happen to anyone, it is important to stretch your legs from time to time, no matter how busy you are with your work.
Tips to undo the side effects of prolonged sitting
- Stand and walk around while talking on the phone.
- For desk jobs, try using a standing desk or opt for a high table or counter.
- If possible, place your work surface above a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk to keep yourself in motion while working.
- For every 30 minutes of sitting, take a walking break of 10 minutes.
- Make physical exercise and yoga an important part of your daily routine.
- While sitting, make sure to maintain correct posture. Keep your upper back and neck comfortably straight and shoulders relaxed.