Most people don’t think too much about sitting down. It’s how we spend the majority of our time, and it feels like a natural state of being. However, sitting is more harmful than you might assume.
Being inactive for long periods of time has immediate and long-term effects on your body. Luckily, this is a problem that everyone can fix with a little awareness and effort.
A typical day for many adults involves sitting down for breakfast, sitting in the car on the way to work, and sitting at a desk all day. Then, they sit in the car on the way home, and they plop down on the couch until bedtime. This doesn’t mean that the average adult is lazy, but sitting is clearly a major part of modern life.
Estimates vary wildly on how much people sit, from 5.5 hours/day on the low end (likely an average that includes people who stand all day for work), to 12+ hours on the higher end. Even at the low end, at 38 hours/week, this is still 12 more hours than the estimate from 1965. More people today work sedentary desk jobs, which probably accounts for this increase.
Some experts estimate that the numbers are approaching 50% of our day, claiming that Americans spend an average of 12 hours per day sitting. This is a reasonable estimation for people who spend all eight hours of the work day sitting, then sit down during their commute and spend a couple hours a day watching TV or browsing the internet from the couch.
In addition to this sitting epidemic, most Americans also suffer from a lack of exercise. Only 20 percent of adults in America get the recommended daily amount of exercise. It might seem difficult to fit a workout into your busy schedule, but humans simply didn’t evolve to be as sedentary as most are today.
If you work a desk job, commute a long distance in your car, or have sedentary hobbies, you’re probably a part of at least one of these statistics. Try to calculate how many hours per week you spend sitting. This includes sitting in the car, at your desk, on the couch, or at the dinner table.
So why are we harping on this whole sitting business? Well, because the more time you spend sitting, the greater your risk of a wide variety of health issues…including death.
Health Risks of Sitting Too Much
Sitting too much isn’t only bad for your back or your circulation. It can literally take years off of your life. The problem isn’t just with sitting. The root of most of these health issues is inactivity. Here are some of the biggest problems associated with sitting all day:
1. Increased Risk of Death (All Causes)
Sitting increases the risk of early death by 12 to 40 percent. The more time you spend sitting each day, the greater your risk of early death is. People who sit for more than 13 hours per day are 200 percent more likely to have an early death than people who sit the least.
The scariest part is that exercising regularly doesn’t have much of an effect on this risk. You could exercise for an hour every day and still face an early death if you sit still all day at your job.
2. Obesity and Diabetes
The link between sitting and obesity should be fairly obvious. When you’re less active, you’ll gain weight more easily. In one study, researchers controlled the caloric intake and daily routine of their subjects. Those who sat more gained more weight than those who were active, even though they all ate the same number of calories.
Your body is constantly burning calories just to keep you alive, but you burn much fewer when sitting still than when moving around. It would take the average person more than eight hours to burn off the calories in a single Big Mac if they sat completely still. Hard to stay slim with those numbers.
Obesity and a lack of physical activity are both linked to type 2 diabetes, too. People who work sedentary jobs have over double the risk of developing diabetes than people who move around more throughout the day. This risk is present even if you’re at a healthy weight.
3. Increased Risk of Cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute, sitting can majorly increase your risk of certain cancers.
Your risk of colon cancer increases by up to 30 percent, and your risk of lung cancer increases by up to 54 percent. Women have it even worse, with the risk of uterine cancer increasing by up to 66 percent (so share this info with your wife or girlfriend!).
4. Immediate Health Problems
Sitting doesn’t just increase your risk of developing a health condition in the future. It starts affecting your body right away. When you sit still for more than 30 minutes to an hour, your rib cage starts to compress your lungs, your digestion slows, and less blood is able to reach your heart.
Within a few minutes of sitting down, the electrical activity in your leg muscles stops. The number of calories you burn drops significantly, and the enzymes that break down fat drop by up to 90 percent.
After two hours, your levels of good cholesterol can drop by 20 percent. If you’re mostly sedentary for a full day, your insulin effectiveness can decrease by 24 percent, and your risk of developing diabetes will start to rise.
5. So How Can You Combat The Dangers Of Sitting?
Unfortunately, hitting the gym isn’t enough to compensate for a full day of sitting. Within just a few minutes or hours, the damage is already done. It’s much better to prevent the damage in the first place than to try to reverse it with exercise.
Most people aren’t in the position to quit their desk jobs and start jogging everywhere. The good news, though, is that you don’t have to make a major change to your life to improve your health.
Some small adjustments can have a big impact. Over time, you can incorporate more and more healthy habits until you’ve eliminated several hours of sitting each day.
6. Move Around More
Simply incorporating more movement into your day is the best way to avoid the health consequences of sitting. According to Columbia University scientist, Keith Diaz, you should get up and move around for five minutes after 30 minutes of sitting. That’s about the most succinct answer I’ve come across that will help keep you healthy.
Stretch your legs, get your blood flowing, and loosen up your muscles. Walking at a brisk pace is the best way to take a break, but marching in place or doing some jumping jacks can help, too.
Even stand up, get a drink, and come back to your desk. It’s better than nothing!
7. Use a Sit-Stand Desk
Standing all day will get uncomfortable and tiring for your feet, but spending a couple hours standing at your desk is great for your health. You can adjust the height of a sit-stand desk throughout the day, so you can easily stand up and stretch your legs while still working.
One study found that sit-stand desks reduced time spent sedentary by an average of 3.2 hours per week. Standing still isn’t the perfect solution to combat sitting, but it’s a better alternative and will help you move more throughout your work day.
8. Fidget More
Some people are naturally restless, and you may get annoyed with your coworker’s foot-bouncing or finger-tapping. But it’s probably keeping her healthier than if she sat still.
Anything you can do to move around while sitting at your desk will benefit you. Fidgeting actually helps the body burn more calories to a significant extent. Try to get in the habit of bouncing your leg, twiddling your thumbs, or playing with your hair.
9. Avoid Your Couch
It’s understandable to want to relax and watch TV after a long work day. However, people who sit and watch TV for several hours a day have a 64 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease.
Find ways to spend more time off of the couch while you’re at home. If the weather is nice, take a walk around your neighborhood. If you want to stay inside, tidy up your house while watching TV or listening to music.
10. Adjust Your Sitting Position
Sitting for a long time is bad for you regardless of your posture, but your sitting position does make a difference. Sitting at a 135 degree angle will put less strain on your back than hunching forward, so try to lean back and relax while working at your desk.
Most people have fairly sedentary lives, but humans are meant to be active. Sitting all day affects your muscles, your heart, your circulation, and a number of other body systems. It can lead to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and even death.
You can easily take a stand against sitting. Being aware of how much time you spend sedentary is half the battle. Then, all you have to do is remind yourself to get up and move around. You’ll notice the benefits immediately, and you’ll be grateful later in your life that you prioritized your health.