This is Your Body on Chairs

Increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes. Lower metabolism rate. Higher rates of hospitalisation. Lower life expectancy.

Lower life expectancy.

These weren’t the effects of an activity traditionally associated with risk-taking. These were the results, I was increasingly starting to read, of excessive sitting. ‘Excessive’ meaning, basically, what pretty much anyone who works at a computer does.

So when I headed back to work after summer vacation a couple of years back, I set myself up a makeshift standing desk as an experiment. To my surprise, I haven’t looked back.

Whilst there was of course a mild period of adjustment, and it still gets a little tiring in some ways, I quickly found that I was finishing my working days with less stiffness in my back and neck, and less overall fatigue. I also found it easier to get into a state of real focus, or flow, during the workday.

Not only are there immediate benefits to a standing desk though – there are serious long-term benefits as well. Here are a few thoughts on the why and how of sitting less:

Why you should try sitting less:

1. Our bodies are designed to move

“The human body is designed to stand, not sit. Standing is better for the back than sitting. It strengthens leg muscles and improves balance.” – Harvard Business Review

One study introducing regular sit-stand breaks into workers routines over 7 weeks even found a 54% reduction in back and neck pain!

There is a great 5-minute TED video that outlines some of the basic principles of the ways that standing suits the health of the human body better than long periods of sitting (Thanks to Matt Valler who blogs here for posting it to the A Deliberate Life Facebook page) –

2. It’s better for your waistline

You burn more kilojoules, or calories, standing than sitting, though reports vary on the exact percentages.

According to one Dr. John Buckley from the University of Chester in the UK, standing instead of sitting for 3-4 hours per day is the equivalent activity output of running about 10 marathons a year! Hey, I’d settle for it being even one!

Reports all agree, however, that there is a definite positive benefit to the waistline in both breaking up, and reducing overall, our sitting time.

 

3. You’re less likely to get sick or die

Here’s the big one – report after report concurred that sitting too much can put you at increased risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. But just as shocking was the general agreement that excessive sitting raised the risk of all-around mortality (again, ‘excessive’ meaning sitting for the majority of the day as most computer- or meeting-based workers do).

sitting too much—even among people who exercise regularly—led to higher rates of hospitalization, heart disease and cancer, as well as early death” – TIME

 

“Over a lifetime, the unhealthful effects of sitting add up. Alpa Patel, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, tracked the health of 123,000 Americans between 1992 and 2006. The men in the study who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less. The death rate for women who sat for more than six hours a day was about 40 percent higher. Patel estimates that on average, people who sit too much shave a few years off of their lives.” – New York Times

 

“In 2012, an Australian university study of 200,000 subjects found that even after controlling for other risk factors, people who sit for eight hours a day – the bare minimum for most people who work in an office – are at 15 per cent greater risk of early death than those who move more. Another Australian study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012, found that, based on an average of six hours sitting (in this case, to watch TV) per day and using figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study, every hour spent sitting by a person over the age of 25 reduces their life expectancy by 22 minutes. As the authors pointed out, this makes sitting a loss of life risk factor “comparable to … physical inactivity, smoking and obesity.” – Sydney Morning Herald

 

4. You can’t ‘off-set’ the damage with exercise

Some people have started calling sitting ‘the smoking of our generation’. Just as you can’t out-health-food or out-exercise the detrimental effects of smoking, nor can you eliminate the damage done by sitting all day simply by adding exercise into the equation.

 

“In a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers reported that people spent an average of 64 hours a week sitting, 28 hours standing, and 11 hours milling about (non exercise walking), whether or not they exercised the recommended 150 minutes a day. That’s more than nine hours a day of sitting, no matter how active they otherwise were” – Runner’s world

 

“Put simply, the perspective we propose is that ‘too much sitting’ is distinct from ‘too little exercise’” – NCBI

 

“The conventional wisdom, though, is that if you watch your diet and get aerobic exercise at least a few times a week, you’ll effectively offset your sedentary time. A growing body of inactivity research, however, suggests that this advice makes scarcely more sense than the notion that you could counter a pack-a-day smoking habit by jogging… Sitting, it would seem, is an independent pathology. Being sedentary for nine hours a day at the office is bad for your health whether you go home and watch television afterward or hit the gym. – New York Times

 

How you can try sitting less:

So what can you do about all of this? Here are some suggestions, from the minor to the more substantial, to try to limit or break up how much you sit in a day –

1. Try a standing desk

This doesn’t have to mean a big investment. There are a wealth of ways to safely and securely create a standing desk, or simply add an additional level to your current desk so you can use it for both sitting and standing, at least long enough to try out a new way of working. Start googling and you will find plenty of ideas! A few to get you started are herehere, here and here. You could also use another piece of furniture you already have, such as a filing cabinet or a small bookcase, to try it out.

You can start out using it for an hour here or there, or even dive in with a week-long experiment and see how you feel at the end of it!

2. Set alerts to get up and move around

The photo at the top of this page is a still from the ad for the Apple Watch – one of the features they’ve built in is a way to set a reminder to stand up at certain intervals, such as 30 minutes.

You don’t need the latest and greatest gadgets though – all you need is some kind of timer on your phone or desktop to remind you to move around every half an hour or so. Alternatively, there is, of course an app for that – though I’ve not used it myself.

3. Try some standing or walking meetings

If you have some like-minded colleagues, why not try switching up some of your meetings to standing meetings. I have colleagues who attest that for certain types of meetings, there are additional productivity and energy-dynamic benefits to this approach too. If it’s a one-one-one, you could even try a walking (or at least meandering) meeting.

 

In Conclusion

It seems pretty clear that the fact that so many of us now spend so many hours glued to our chairs, either in meetings or at our devices, is not ideal for our health.

However, it is also clear that there are definite steps we can take to tackle this – and it starts by just standing up!

 

Sitting Is Killing You

 infographic by Visual.ly

Sources and Further Reading:

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