Sitting is the new black lung
The newest craze in health declares how "Sitting is the new smoking" and all of us office dwellers are going to die lonely and painful deaths from our lack of sunlight and low back pain. Pale people with hip displacement aren't as eligible of bachelors as those who are tan and flexible, so get a standing desk and take your pasty butt outside once in a while because you are single and alone and going to get an occupational limp. (Full disclosure, I'm sitting while I write this.)
But, let's dig deeper than the headlines. Are those of us who work at desks destined to wither and perish decades before those of us who have more physical jobs? Maybe.
Let's be honest. You weren't meant to sit in an office all day long under fluorescent lighting while drinking instant coffee with fake milk, watching cat videos...or were you? Maybe you were born to watch cat videos all day and drink bad coffee, and if you believe this to be true, read no further. I commend you and your ability to stay on your true path. Rock on.
However, for the rest of us, these are not things we should be doing 8 plus hours a day, especially while seated. Our bodies are meant to be in motion, but the question is, how much should we move? What's the correct dose?
We Love to sit
There have been a surplus of studies to come out against our national obsession with sitting. And don't get me wrong, I love sitting. I love sitting on boats, in cars, on planes, couches, and on toilets. When a line gets too long, I always wish I could be sitting while waiting rather than standing while waiting. And nothing beats sitting on the commuter train after a long and tired day of working while sitting. I'm also a person who loves to walk. I love both walking and sitting. The two aren't mutually exclusive.
However, the reality is, we are all sitting too often. We wake up and sit, we drive to work sitting, we get to work and sit at our desk, go to lunch and eat our burritos sitting and then leave work just to sit in the car on the way home where we beeline directly to the couch for the rest of the evening. Nothing better to end a day then falling onto your couch to watch a whole season of Mad Men on Netflix. And don't get me started if you work from home. The sitting turns into lying flat on your back for 20 hours a day with only bathroom and Twinkie breaks to break up your horizontal lifestyle.
But you might say, "I go to the gym everyday and workout for an hour. I'm fine." Not too fast, buddy! You aren't saved either---but I'll get to that later. The moral of the story is, we sit too much folks! On an average day, we are sedentary for 21 hours! And the number one excuse for a break from sitting on a chair is going to sit on the toilet. At least some of us get to stand while relieving ourselves.
We have clearly out-sit our welcome---let's get moving to the research.
A Look at The Research
Everyone has been talking about the research out of the 'Annals of Internal Medicine' which gathered information from 47 studies looking at the health effects of sedentary behavior. The results state that more than half of the average person's waking hours are spent sitting, and sitting will kill you. This includes all of our favorite activities: watching TV, working at a computer, commuting, watching "The Bachelor", knitting giant hats, etc.
Okay, so we're all lazy, dur. But what does this mean? Well, the Canadian (ehhh!) researchers adjusted for different types of activity, from leisure activities, like playing Frisbee while listening to Phish, to more vigorous exercise. And even if you exercise on a regular basis, with strenuous efforts, they did NOT offset the negative effects of sitting all day. Running for an hour doesn't balance out sitting for 8. Uh Oh.
So... exercise is no good?
Not so fast. Exercise is still great for your health and has numerous benefits for your mind, body and triceps. But while exercise won't offset the negative aspects of sitting all day, NO physical activity at all makes things worse. The negative effects (like dying!) were even more pronounced in the people who did little to no exercise. Sorry sedentary folks---no easy out on this one.
Why is sitting bad for your health?
So what are the health hazards of hunkering your bottom down all day long? There are at least 24 chronic disease related to sitting. Some of the effects include; DEATH (okay, a little dramatic but ultimately true), cardiovascular disease, higher rates of type 2 diabetes, cancer, cancer-related deaths and even a higher risk of developing dementia.
And prolonged sitting (12 or more hours per day) has been shown to disrupt metabolic function, resulting in increased plasma triglyceride levels, decreased levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and decreased insulin sensitivity (not good).
In conclusion, prolonged sitting is a risk factor for all-cause mortality. Shorter sitting times and sufficient physical activity are independently protective against all-cause mortality not just for healthy individuals but also for those with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, overweight, or obesity.
Here's a great video explaining the effects of sitting all day long.
Is Standing Really the Answer?
Before you go out and drop 3,000 dollars on your next spaceship command center, a note on treadmill desks, standing desks and weird desks in general. First, are you really going to use them? Are you going to be that guy in the office who bought the standing desk? Seriously, there is a lot of pressure to being a pioneer, especially when it comes to physical feats. The moment you pull up a stool to reach your high desk and recline, the water cooler will be awash in high chair commentators.
Also, do you even know if you CAN work and stand at the same time? Personally, I find it difficult to write and stand at the same time. And let's not even talk about the treadmill desk. Every time you'll want to type something, your delete button will have to be ten times its current size so you can correct yourself every time you type "jello" instead of "hello".
And will the act of merely standing save your life? Well....not really. Kind of. Maybe.
Listen, hark back to the days when many Americans were standing at their jobs, factory or otherwise. At a time where working in an office was one of a distant dream, only for the most fortunate. The need for chairs increased due to all of the backaches, curvatures of the spine and varicose veins (Oh HELL no!).
Yea, there is no "perfect" way to be when it comes to work. We all have bad posture, and there was never a "glory days" when it came to getting the best spinal positioning at your job. People got hurt from standing too much, walking too much and being too active.
So what IS the best way to prevent all the maladies that come with sitting?
Basically, just get up and move every hour. You don't have to do much. Set an alarm on your phone and every 40 minutes, get up, walk around, say hello to John in the mail-room and then get back to work. That's it. Nothing fancy. No Star Trek themed desks.
Get up once in a while
Dr. James Levine pictured above---co-director of the Mayo Clinic at the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative and author of the book 'Get UP! Why your chair is killing you and what you can do about it.' (I can tell you what to do about it right now. Stand up.)
Dr. Levine is the Guru of standing and has been studying the effects of your sagging butt for decades. When he first presented the idea that sitting was bad for your health, colleagues sent letters to senior faculty at the Mayo Clinic suggesting he was psychiatrically ill and was required to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. Talk about a supportive community. Why all the haters?
Dr. Levine has since been redeemed with over 10,000 studies confirming what he had believed; sitting in and of itself can be harmful to the human body, separate of other good lifestyle habits. As Levine states:
"It can be quite disconcerting to realize that even if you dutifully go to the gym several times a week and are really fit, it is still not enough to counteract the many hours you sit during the rest of your day..."
Unsettling as this sounds, please continue going to the gym. But don't take one hour of physical activity as an excuse to sit on your butt for the rest of the day. You aren't doing anyone any favors.
So what happens when you get up off your butt? Why is it so effective? To start, we were never meant to be confined in a chair all day long. Our bodies have evolved to move. And at a molecular level, when you get up from sitting for a while, a bunch of changes begin to happen. After 90 seconds of standing, the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol—which are mediated by insulin—are activated. A cascade is set off that impact the cellular function of your muscles. The way your body handles blood sugar is beneficially influenced (this helps with Diabetes, for example). So if you are constantly sitting, your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol will always be too high, as well as increase your risk of cancer.
the good news? all you have to do is get up. if you are sitting for an hour, that is too much.
Set an alarm at your desk which goes off every 40 minutes. Take a walk around the office. Say hello to long lost friends, and make new ones. This can be a fun new activity for your office mates. Create treasure maps around the office and hide fun goodies like staplers, extra tape or tickets to see a speed walking event. Yes, those exist. It will be great motivation to move your body.
Sitting doesn't have to be a death wish, just make sure to counteract it once in a while.
A Note on Fidgeting
If you are a hopeless fidgeter who gets yelled at by strangers and family alike for the constant rattling of your foot against their chair, good news. You could be doing yourself a favor.
A new study of more than 12,000 UK women suggests that those who claimed to fidget the most were apparently protected against the ravages of being seated. The women who sat still for hours on end were more likely to have died over the course of the study than those whose limbs tapped, wobbled and gently vibrated. (I once got yelled at in my University library for fidgeting; I couldn't stop rattling my leg while studying. Nervous habit. But joke's on him because I added 10 years to my life, sucker!)
In the study, 12,778 women aged 37 to 78 were asked to provide information on their average daily sitting time and to score the amount they fidgeted on a scale from one to 10, with one being “no fidgeting at all” and 10 being “constant fidgeting”.
The researchers divided the women into three groups, specifically low, middle and high fidgeters. Writing in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine:
"...the researchers found that women who sat for seven or more hours a day were 30% more likely to have died from any cause than those who sat for five or fewer hours, but only if they were low fidgeters. Those in the middle and high fidgeting groups had no greater risk of dying when they sat for the longer periods."
Annoying fidgeters for the win! I always knew I was doing myself a favor. That feeling of wanting to crawl out of your skin is merely a survival technique because your body is so smart.
The moral of this story is to be smart and active when it comes to your health and your body. Be aware of how long you've been sitting in your chair. If there is a permanent groove in your seat that is the same size as your ass, you know it's been too long. Take this as an excuse for frequent breaks, a good physical and mental rest. And if you decide on spending money on the standing desk, make sure you use it! And don't just stand there, you still have to move around to get the full benefits of standing tall. Our bodies need movement, not just a repositioning into another static pose for 5 hours.
One last thing, if your boss gives you a hard time, tell them they are slowly killing you and it's all their fault. That usually works.
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