The Perils of Sitting Down Too Much

There’s always something we’re told is bad for us isn’t there – stuff we like doing, like sunbathing and drinking coffee.  Well,  sitting down  features in this list of  “don’ts”  these days.

Why?

If you hop onto the www and search for information about why sitting is bad for the health,  you’ll find that most of the content is around the increased risk of physiological problems – slowing down of the metabolic rate and generally burning less calories, disruption to insulin metabolism, disrupted lipid profile, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even some cancers.  With  sensationalism worthy of a Daily Express headline, you can even find statistics quoting your percentage risk of an early death depending upon how long you sit each day.

This is only part of the story however and I want to concentrate on the  postural problems and the irritating niggles, aches and pains caused by prolonged sitting.

Fundamentally, this is  because  the body is too still.  Our bodies are finely tuned  machines of movement – they love to move and abhor inactivity.   Sit down for long periods and your body will not like it, but how is your body going to tell your conscious mind? Well the body can’t speak so it will tell you some other way.  Maybe you will have aches and pains, or generally feel a bit sluggish.

I have long thought that part of the reason for the psychological benefits of exercise may be, in part, borne out of a subconscious desire to move, especially if you’re fairly sedentary most of the time.  If you sit at a desk all day there is movement in the body, but where?  Probably in the neck and a little in the arms – nothing much elsewhere.

Lack of movement is a bad thing per se, but sitting will also tend to exacerbate the following:

  • fixing the pelvis into one position when it is supposed to freely move.  Over time this stiffness in the pelvis will then affect your gait.
  •  slouching  – creating a rounded lower back which is associated with back problems and in particular with disc related problems and injury.     If you slouch in a chair, you are not sitting  with your sit bones supporting you from underneath,  encouraging you to sit tall.  The latter posture appropriately supports the weight of the body cavity, that is,  all of your internal organs – instead of them resting on the pelvic floor and pushing against the lower back.  Is there any wonder that sitting tall feels better than slouching, even though gravity has an annoying habit of pulling us back down?    Chairs with backs and chairs with nice soft cushions aggravate this tendency to slouch .  Hard chairs or stools encourage good sitting and in the complete absence of chairs we’d retain the ability  to “sit” in a deep squat like toddlers or as people do in countries where they don’t have much furniture.
  • the tendency to round the upper back.  Quite often this is the stiffest part of the back anyway and it can become quite fixed and rounded.  We still need to go about our daily lives and need some kind of movement and so that movement can become restricted to parts of the spine above and below the upper back (or thoracic spine, to give it its official title.)   A lot of movement that should originate in the thoracic spine subsequently takes place in the neck, which is then chronically overworked whilst the thoracic spine is chronically under worked and gets even stiffer.
  • the development of “mushy” abs and “limp” glutes.  I mainly added this in because I thought the adjectives were  funny.  The thing about this point is to remember that other things will also de-condition the glutes and abs, but sitting certainly won’t help.  Every time you sit down the body has to stretch slightly at the back (and therefore in the backs of the thighs and the bottom) to enable you to get into a seated position.  The longer you sit, the longer the glutes settle into a resting, lengthened position.  The opposite is the case for the abs.  If you slouch, the abs are compacted and shortened like a concertina, and become equally de-conditioned.
  • and here’s the latest, which I read in Grazia.  (I know, I should have been reading Nelson Mandela’s biog or Middlemarch…. and I was sitting down.)   Anyway, it makes Cellulite worse!  Whilst not exactly life threatening, or even completely proven for that matter,  it is an extra, aesthetic inducement to action.

How much is too much?

I’m going to keep fairly quiet about this.  Lots of us are sedentary at work out of necessity.  That is a given, so lets not worry about it too much  and instead pose a different question:

What is the minimum amount of time to  spend sitting down?   Well, if you’re working, work, and if you’re not, then avoid it, unless you’re eating.

Ideas to mitigate the effects of sitting

Basically, move more: more range of movement for the joints, more of the body, more often.

Before you say it, let me stop you right there…..Yes we do all have enough time!   An exercise class isn’t always possible, or may never be possible but there’s always time to take the stairs and not the lift, to stand up and bend to each side three or four times,  or sit to stand out of the chair three of four times,  followed by a full body stretch like the one we do first thing in the morning.  

What is tricky is remembering to do something, not finding the time.   Just a minute or so is much, much better than nothing.  The key is to find the ones that will work for you.

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 Standing up and cooking tea is even more useful than previously thought: it saves money, is often healthier than take  away food and you have to move about to cook. Wash up afterwards and if you’re using a dishwasher, go into a deep squat to load it.

Spend lunch time away from the desk:  Go for a walk,   find a 30 minute exercise class,  run an errand,  liaise with colleagues in person.

Hold meetings whilst walking.  This is the corporate zeitgeist – said to stimulate creativity, and relax the mind and body.  It will also free off the joints and get you moving more.

Pilates. I’m tempted to offer that as a solution but it’s not actually necessary.  However, the advantage of Pilates or other structured movement classes is that the spine will move – preferably in all planes of movement. Walking is great but we need to move our spines and all of the body,  not just the legs.

When making that cup of coffee or waiting for the computer to boot up or  for your kids to finish their breakfast, make use of the time by doing some extra movement: squats,  spine twists, side bends, wall press ups. Once again, walking is hard to beat and very adaptable to time and place, but it is also important to move in a way that makes more of the joints go through bigger ranges of movement.

Want to get the muscles in the bottom moving?  Go running.  Those of you that know your Pilates exercises – do the Roll Down.  When done properly that takes the glutes and hamstrings, (and indeed the abs) through a  big range of movement using body weight as resistance.

What about the abs then?  In our society we tend to equate good abs with having a flat stomach and taut muscles, but that isn’t what we need.  What we need is functional abs not visually perfect ones.   What to do?  Get the body moving! Gently working the trunk and spine will inherently work the abs but in a formal setting, using free weight and kettle bells will do the trick.

Treadmill desk anyone?   When Victoria Beckham got one a few months ago, Twitter went mad for it (surprise surprise).   She might be onto something but even VB needs to do that other stuff to take the joints through a nice big range of movement.

When You Need to Sit

Try to keep it brief – move about when you can.

If you sit for long periods at work then sit “properly”, with good alignment.  I won’t repeat myself – instead check out The Traffic Queue – a Blessing in Disguise?


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