Spending endless hours in a chair isn’t just murder on your back – it can literally kill you.
Almost three years ago, Women's Health was among the first to expose sitting disease. The gist: too much inactivity can leave you prone to deadly ailments like heart disease and obesity. The advice: get your arse moving. But, like the average Aussie, you probably clock 15 hours a day (more than 90 per cent of your waking hours) on your bum. Scary stuff.
The only real momentum has been in the lab, where research has found that inactivity can also damage your mind, sleep cycle and organs. It could even shorten your life. A 14-year study of 123,000 people by the American Cancer Society has found women who sit for more than six hours a day have about a 40 per cent higher risk of dying from any cause, regardless of their fitness level, versus those who sit for fewer than three hours (harsh).
“The human body evolved to move around,” says Dr James Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, US. “We put our feet up now more than ever. It’s unnatural and hazardous to our health.” Behold, the science behind sitting disease and how to sidestep its risks.
When you’re plopped in a chair for hours, gravity and a lack of circulation can cause fluid build-up in your lower legs. A pair of cankles isn’t the worst of it: when you later lie down to sleep, that fluid migrates to the muscles and tissues of your neck and may force your throat to swell, says Dr Douglas Bradley from the Centre for Sleep Medicine and Circadian Biology, Canada. You may have a harder time breathing and might even stop for short periods in your sleep – a condition called sleep apnoea.
It’s not just mindlessly sucking down kilojoules that adds junk to your trunk. A study from Israel’s Tel Aviv University found that when you sit for long periods, the weight your body puts on your fat cells actually encourages them to create twice as much fat – at a faster rate – as when you’re standing. And you’re gaining the worst kind of chub. “When we sit or lie on fat cells, they produce more triglycerides, the type of fat that can raise stroke risk,” says study author, biomedical engineer Dr Amit Gefen.
Your blood sugar
Every time you tuck into a meal, your blood sugar spikes. “You get this huge four-hour crush of [kilojoule]-storing activity in the body,” explains Dr Levine. Research shows too much lolling around could turn this typically normal process into a dangerous one. When otherwise healthy people halved the number of steps they took a day, their blood sugar spikes increased after each meal, no matter what type of grub they ate. “We know these increased post-meal spikes are linked to a higher risk for type 2 diabetes,” says Dr John Thyfault, an associate professor of exercise physiology at the University of Missouri, US.
Um, what? The more you sit around, the more likely you are to fall prey to so-called senior moments. Your noggin’s hippocampus – or memory centre – deteriorates as you age, but the side effects of being sedentary (obesity, diabetes) can fast forward that process. On the flipside, physical activity can beef up the size of your hippocampus, according to research from the University of Pittsburgh, US.
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Something as simple as breathing can get messed up by too much chair time. Sedentary women have more than double the risk of a pulmonary embolism (aka, a blood clot in the lungs). “Prolonged sitting makes your blood flow sluggish and more likely to form clots, which can become lodged in your lungs,” says Dr Christopher Kabrhel, an emergency medicine physician. The more you sit, the higher your risk – and women on the pill (which increases blot-clot risk) should be extra mindful.
Your anti-sit solution
Convinced now that sitting is your nemesis? Enough of the scary stuff and on to the solutions – all of the above effects are easily avoidable (yes, even if you’re a desk jockey), and you don’t have to get extreme at the gym. Push-till-you-drop workouts aren’t likely to be enough to combat sitting disease – they may even make things worse. Sweat sessions may make you think you’re immune to the side effects of being sedentary. In reality, working out and limiting time spent sitting are key for overall health, says epidemiologist Dr Alpa Patel.
Second, “if you’ve been sitting all day, your lower back, hamstrings and hip flexor muscles are all in tightened positions,” says orthopaedic surgeon Dr Michael Fredericson. “When you jump too quickly into hardcore exercise, your muscles are more susceptible to injury.” (Your back is particularly at risk.)
Of course, you shouldn’t stop your workouts. The key to fighting sitting disease lies in augmenting your routine with something called NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Translation: low-impact movements that keep your metabolism humming and your circulation flowing. Cooking qualifies, as does sex (yeah!), gardening, even cruising the office for some water-cooler chitchat. The key is to move around as often as you can. Aim to do something NEAT for 10 minutes every waking hour.
“Try standing every time you take a phone call or taking a 20-minute walk after dinner,” says Dr Levine. In fact, if there’s one time you should get NEAT, it’s when your stomach’s full. Even just 10 minutes of post-meal dishwashing can help obliterate many ugly effects of sitting disease – and potentially add back years to your life.
Sure, it’s not always possible to get off your laurels. What you can do, however, is make NEAT life tweaks like these:
☛ If management won’t cough up for a sit-stand desk, like those at Ergo Furniture, stand up to take phone calls and read documents, and swap your chair for a fitness ball.
☛ Take plenty of trips to the water filter which will, in turn, increase your number of toilet trips – then use the loo furthest from your area.
☛ Send your documents to a printer on the other side of the office or another floor.
☛ Create a screensaver that reminds you to stand up and stretch, or use a widget like StretchClock.
☛ Whether you drive or use public transport, incorporate some walking into your trip to work by parking further away or walking to the next station – a study published in the Lancet examining activity levels in different countries found Oz lags behind when it comes to walking to work, with just 3.8 per cent of us doing so.
☛ If you’re a commuter, pace up and down the platform or footpath while you wait for your ride.
☛ Do mundane tasks (paying bills, emailing) while standing.
☛ Pace around the house while you talk on the phone.
☛ Carry your shopping in one bag at a time.
☛ Chop your own vegies instead of buying pre-cut produce.