Mounting evidence that prolonged sitting is a disaster for our health calls for a radical rethink of what we do at our desks through the day.
We’ve all heard the warnings that “sitting is the new smoking,” but now there’s overwhelming evidence that prolonged sitting cannot be reversed by a couple of training sessions a week. That’s because too much sitting slows or even halts some of your body’s key metabolic activities, and in turn can lead to weight gain, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and even some cancers. In fact, health professionals are so concerned they recommend that exercise be seen as an activity you weave into your life throughout the day, not just at the gym.
But why is sitting so bad? The truth is that it’s simply another form of inactivity, which is the sworn enemy of the human body. We were never created to be inactive for hours at a stretch, say the experts, pointing out that while many of us have enthusiastically embraced the Paleo way of eating, we haven’t done the same with the hunter-gatherer way of living (moving all day).
One of the places that actively studies the effects of sitting is the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia. Dr Alicia Thorp, a researcher at the Institute says we’re finally figuring out why sitting is so bad for you.
“Muscle contraction is a major contributor to many of the body’s regulatory processes, such as breaking down glucose, and when we sit, our leg muscles are essentially inactive,” she says. “Sitting for prolonged periods can slow the production and activities of key enzymes involved in the removal of fats and sugars from the blood into skeletal muscle, and exercising won’t prevent this slowing down from occurring.”
Not moving, Dr Thorp says, can lead to transient rises in blood glucose, free fatty acids and triglycerides.
“When repeated multiple times each day, these elevations can trigger a cascade of pathogenic pathways including increased oxidative stress, inflammation and endothelial dysfunction which can ultimately promote atherosclerosis and cardiovascular events”
Dr Thorp says we need to encourage a “whole day” approach to physical activity.
“It’s now becoming clear that it’s not enough that people just focus on getting 30 minutes of purposeful exercise a day. We need to take every opportunity to move around and be active during the day.”
Various studies show that small breaks with activity — say, every 20 or 30 minutes — will do the trick. Not everybody can commit to an intense 30-minute Metafit class!
Another way of combating the ill-effects of sitting is to incorporate incidental exercise into your routine. Even seemingly minor activity can have a cumulative effect.
- Take the stairs rather than the lift or elevator
- Use a bathroom on another floor
- Place your rubbish bin on the other side of the office
- Walk or run to work instead of using the car or public transport
- If using the bus or train, get off a stop or two earlier
- When in the car, park as far away from work or the shops as possible
- Pick up the pace when walking, since brisk walking is more beneficial
- Meet a friend for a take away coffee and a walk, rather than sitting with them in a café
- At home, do more housework, such as vacuuming and cleaning
- When watching TV try doing some chores like ironing or folding the washing
- Get off the couch during ad breaks. Use them as a timer for activity
- When shopping, don’t push the trolley to the car. Carry your bags from the checkout.
The top 5 ways to address inactivity at work
THE SECRET: Do things that contract most of the muscles in your body for a couple of minutes, at least every 20 to 30 minutes.
1. Incorporate standing as often as possible into you work routine. It restores many of the vital metabolic activities that slow down or stop when you sit. Consider standing when answering the phone and even holding standing meetings with your colleagues.
2. Every 20 minutes or half an hour or so, get up and walk around and, ideally, perform a couple of quick exercises.
3. If you’ve got access to a stairwell, walk up and down stairs for a couple of minutes – this is a seriously good bang-for-the-buck activity, according to Finnish researchers.
4. At lunchtime, go for brisk walks. Studies show that walking fast is more beneficial than ordinary walking pace.
5. Consider a height-adjustable stand-up desk. But don’t try to stand all day, says Dr Thorp from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute. About-to-be-published research by the Institute has shown that alternating between standing up and sitting down works best. Like sitting on a balance ball, standing all day will unnecessarily tire all but the fittest people and lead to bad posture.
Does sitting on a ball help?
Dr Thorp says the main issue with using a balance ball at work is that it requires very good core strength.
“Most people don’t have the strength to allow them to sit for long periods of time correctly — the result is slouching, which ironically leads to back, shoulder and core strain and pain. Balance balls also generally don’t allow you to sit at the correct height for most computer workstations, which creates other ergonomic issues.”