Friday, August 23, 2013

The Dangers of Sitting

Office chairs
Photo by nateOne
I've been a professional desk jockey for over 10 years now, spending most of my waking moments in front of a computer screen.  Oh, I knew the risks when I started this gig – carpal tunnel, eye strain, disapproving glares from attractive women  –  but the siren’s call of the white-collar job was too alluring.
Everything was fine for a couple of years.  I climbed the corporate ladder, hunkered down behind my keyboard all day, every day, enjoying a steady paycheck.  As time crept by, though, I found myself plagued by a variety of chronic physical problems:  weight gain, back pain and muscle spasms to name a few.  Now, after these many long years of suffering, I have come to an inevitable conclusion...

My office chair is trying to kill me.

I know it looks all docile and innocent sitting on its plastic roller-mat, but don’t be fooled by the fabric-coated facade – it has spent the last decade luring me into a sedentary death spiral.  And the chair is not alone in this dastardly endeavor; my sofa has been plotting my demise, as well (in cahoots with the recliner, no doubt).  How did I come to this conclusion, you say?  Elementary, my dear reader!  It’s simply because...

Sitting is dangerous to your health

Scary chair
Photo by woodleywonderworks
Everyone knows regular exercise is good for you, but up until now few have recognized just how bad a sedentary lifestyle can be.  According to a study published last year in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, people who sit for prolonged periods throughout the day are 54% more likely to die of heart attacks.  Even accounting for factors like diet, exercise and smoking habits, the amount of time you spend sitting seems to be a major contributor to cardiovascular problems.

A different report by the American Cancer Society showed that women who spend more than 6 hours per day sitting during their leisure time (outside of work) were 34% more likely to die over the 13-year study compared to women who spent less than 3 hours.  Men were 18% more likely to die, again regardless of exercise habits.  And when you factor in a lack of exercise, as well?

Women and men who both sat more and were less physically active were 94 percent and 48 percent more likely to die during the study period, respectively, compared with those who reported sitting the least and being most active.

Let me say that again.  Women who sit all day and don’t exercise have a 94% higher mortality rate than those who get off their butts and move.  Sedentary men have a 48% higher mortality rate than their more active counterparts.  Those are huge numbers, especially when followed by the words “mortality” and “rate”, a.k.a. the rate at which you die!1

Still sitting down?  Check out this scary infographic (complete with chairs possessed by ancient demons).

So the two questions that come to mind are:  1)  Why is sitting so deadly? and 2) What can we do about it?

I’m glad you asked...

Why is sitting so deadly?

Cemetery bench
Photo by seeveeaar
When you sit down in your chair/sofa/Volkswagon, you basically lock yourself into a single position and turn off most of the muscles in your body:  abs, legs, back and buttocks.  The only things you really move while you’re sitting are your arms, neck and shoulders.  At that point, energy expenditure is minimal – you only burn about 10% more calories sitting than you do sleeping, whereas you burn almost twice as many standing  –  and your metabolism slows to a crawl.  So weight gain is inevitable, but an expanding waistline is not the only culprit here.

Researchers have identified that after sitting for a couple of hours you experience a significant drop in lipoprotein lipase (LPL), an enzyme responsible for breaking down fat in the bloodstream.  This drop in LPL, in turn, creates a build up of triglycerides and reduces LDL (good) cholesterol in the blood, which is great news if you’re into things like hypertension, angina and heart attacks.  If you’re not, though, it might be time to take a stand...literally.

What can we do about it?

Since the root of the problem seems to be reduced LPL, the obvious solution is to keep those levels up throughout the day.  Researchers believe the best way to do this is constant, low-intensity movements like standing, walking and fidgeting in your seat.  High-intensity exercises like running and lifting weights are not as effective at restoring LPL levels so even hitting the gym regularly is not enough.  The key is really to keep from sitting still for long periods.

That said, here are a few suggestions to help you conquer those chair demons and keep the ol’ blood a flowin’:

Coffee break
Photo by alisdair

Take regular breaks

A recent study in the journal Diabetes Care showed that frequent breaks from sitting resulted in lower blood sugar and triglyceride levels.  It’s a good idea to get out of your seat at least a couple of times every hour, but the more, the better.  Walk down to the water cooler for a drink, bust out a few jumping jacks, perform some interpretive dance – whatever you need to do to get your body moving.

Girl on phone
Photo by rajkumar1220

Stand while you talk

Whether you’re on the phone or in person, stand up while you talk.  Not only will you burn more calories and boost your LPL levels, you may also be inclined to keep the conversation short so you can get back to interpretive dance.

Photo by diongillard

Get an exercise ball

You've probably seen a few of your trendy coworkers riding exercise balls at their desks and fought off the temptation to sneak up behind them with a pair of scissors, but don’t burst their bubble just yet; there are good reasons behind the bouncing.  Swapping out your demon chair for a big rubber ball purportedly strengthens core muscles, improves posture and burns more calories because your body has to continually readjust to keep its balance.  Or, if you get bored, you can use them for epic jousting competitions.

Man standing at desk
Photo by Plutor

Get a standing desk

A number of manufacturers make standing desks and workstations that let you do your work while upright – a few (like the TrekDesk) are even tailored to fit over a treadmill.  You probably won’t want to run a marathon while typing a paper or checking your email, but even walking at a slow pace could add up to dozens of miles per week.

All rise!

Let’s face it – humans are just not made for long bouts of sitting.  Unfortunately, our modern, civilized society persuades us to spend a large portion of our time planted square on our bottoms.  We wake up and immediately sit down to have breakfast.  Then we sit in our cars or take a seat on the bus to get to work where we spend all day sitting at our desks.  More sitting gets us back home where we sit down to dinner before relaxing the rest of the night sitting in front of the TV.  Then, finally, we sit in bed and read for a while before hitting the sack so we can do it all over again tomorrow.  No wonder our bodies hate us.

With obesity, diabetes and heart disease on the rise, maybe it’s time we look at our “civilized” lifestyle and made some new choices.  The human body is a fascinating, dynamic machine and all this sitting just lets it go to waste.  As Shakespeare once said:
Our bodies are our gardens - our wills are our gardeners.

Tend your garden – your heart will thank you for it.

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