Last Updated on January 5, 2019
Is sitting bad for you? If you spend most of your day parked on your bum, it turns out you can improve your health simply by standing up!
Is sitting bad for you? Don’t take this research on sitting disease sitting down!
Do you sit most of the day? I used to, but since learning about the health risks of sitting too much, I’ve stopped. Sitting less has also helped a ton with neck and back pain.
Do we have an epidemic of sitting disease? Quite possibly.
As our tech gadgets have proliferated, our opportunities to spend more time sitting have also skyrocketed. Many of us spend our work days parked in front of computers. Add in time in the car and watching TV, and you can easily spend most waking hours on your rear.
It turns out all this sitting is not simply tough on your back. Mounting research suggests that our prolonged sit sessions increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, even cancer, not to mention the number it does on our metabolisms. Check out this helpful infographic from the Washington Post for more details on what sitting does to your body.
Is Sitting Bad for You? What the Research Says About “Sitting Disease”
A recent meta-analysis examined the sitting habits of over half a million people who developed heart problems and over 700,000 who got cancer. Their findings from looking at 47 studies connecting sitting with disease? Prolonged sitting was associated with a 17% increase in the risk of dying of cancer and 18% increase in risk of dying from heart disease.
More concerning: those who sat large portions of the day had nearly double the risk of Type 2 diabetes. (Note: these studies do not show causality, but correlation. However, studies measuring the biochemical effects of sitting suggest how sitting might indeed be responsible for disease development.)
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Some studies have found that extended sitting adversely affects glucose and insulin responses, blood pressure, and cholesterol. It appears that a single long period of sitting has an almost immediate effect on how your body processes sugars and fats. Studies requiring participants to cut back on activity saw noticeable metabolic changes in the space of only a couple weeks. (Find a readable explanation of the metabolic effects of sitting in this NYT piece.)
JustStand.org compiles research pointing to the dangers of sitting and help people around the globe get healthier by reducing the incidence of what some call “sitting disease.”
Think you can make up for all your sitting with a daily run? Unfortunately, it appears that regular exercise does not cancel out an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. So if you sit all day most days and then head to the gym, you’re not in the clear. It helps, but apparently not as much as simply sitting less if you aim to live longer and avoid these diseases.
What to do to avoid sitting disease?
The main takeaway from all this research on sitting disease is that you need to GET UP. OFTEN.
The best thing you can do for your body is get off your duff frequently throughout the day. 20 minutes seems to be a magic number; all those unwanted metabolic changes start happening after the 20-minute mark.
Try standing while you talk to colleagues. Walk down the hall to ask a question rather than sending an email. Pace slowly while you’re making phone calls. Challenge yourself to find ways to sit less.
Consider creating a standing work station.
Even the American Medical Association now advises employers to allow workers alternatives to the traditional desk chair, including standing desks and exercise balls, which encourage more movement and engage muscles not otherwise activated by sitting in traditional chairs.
If you want to try working standing up, you can buy a standing desk or even make an inexpensive one yourself. (Here’s a popular $22 Ikea-hack version. Or you can spring for a sit-to-stand desk like this or this.) A couple cutting-edge work places have their workers walking slowly on a treadmill while working at their standing desks! (And here’s a brilliant DIY hack to make one for your treadmill from Tracy at Oh, the things we’ll make!
You can also get creative with what you have. I discovered that a cabinet we had was just the right height for my keyboard, and I could put my laptop on a shelf to have it at the right height to relieve neck tension. I love this set-up because not only does it make my neck and back so much better, I can fill the cabinet with stuff I don’t want to see and shut the door. Here’s my adored cabinet/workstation.
But you shouldn’t stand all day either!
Turns out standing all day is not the answer. Besides making you more tired, standing all day may even increase your risk for other health issues. Standing is also not considered ideal for computer work because of ergonomic issues.
Alan Hedge of the Cornell Ergonomics program has spoken out against standing work stations (read why here). He suggests this pattern for setting up a healthy work day that reduces the health risks of either sitting or standing too long:
Based on research studies I recommend the 20 minutes sitting (in a good posture), 8 minutes standing (for sit-stand workstations) and 2 minutes of standing and moving (gentle stretching, walking etc.) as a ball park goal for organizing work. For a 7.5 hours workday (lunch is excluded) this means a daily regimen with a total of 5 hours of sitting, 16 sit-to-stand changes, 2 hours of standing and .5 hours of moving. These numbers aren’t hard and fast a company can design their work so employees can be more active… Following this movement pattern throughout the day should keep employees comfortable, healthy and productive.
If you do choose to do some of your work standing, it’s important to set up a workstation correctly. Standing more can take some getting used to, especially if you plan to work long stretches while you stand. Physical therapists recommend wearing sensible shoes with good support and a gel mat that will make your hard-working feet a little happier.
It’s also smart to mix it up rather than staying in exactly the same position. Sway back and forth, or try standing on one foot, then the other. You can do targeted moves, like toe taps to strengthen under-utilized hamstrings, or leg lifts that work glutes (good for your hip flexors, which tend to be tight in people who do a lot of sitting).
This research applies to kids, too. If kids sit for long stretches of the day, it follows that their bodies will also respond with metabolic changes. Some schools have started experimenting with sit-to-stand desks and plan more movement into students’ days to improve learning outcomes and overall health. At home, encourage your kids to seek active play to balance out sedentary activities.
Are you sitting down right now? If it’s been 20 minutes, get up and avoid sitting disease!
This post is one in a series of Savvy Health Hacks, easy ways to ensure your body has what it needs to function optimally. Ready to hack your health? Check out these other practical tips to help you fight colds, sleep better, ward off disease, and have more energy:
- How to Eat For Better Sleep
- Why You Need a Water Filter
- Immune Boosting Foods
- Health Benefits of Potassium
- Are You Getting Enough Magnesium?
- Health Benefits of Sunflower Seeds
- Anti Inflammatory Food
- Health Benefits of Turmeric
- Are You D-ficient?
- Easy Ways to Reduce Cortisol
- Get Outside! (Easiest Health Hack Ever)
If you want to read more about preventing “sitting disease” from affecting your health, check out this impressive compilation of articles on the subject.
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Disclaimer: I’m a health enthusiast, not a medical professional. Content on this website is intended for informational purposes only and is not meant to provide personalized medical advice. Please consult them for more information and a licensed professional for personalized recommendations.
Photo credits: StartupStockPhotos, Paul Inkles and Juhan Sonin
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.