In our tech-driven, computer-worshipping world, life is sedentary—often inescapably so. No longer do the masses roll up their sleeves and perform manual labor in factories, or toil in the fields from sun-up to sun-down. Rather, the vast majority of our days are spent languishing in cramped cubicles or offices, punching away at a keyboard, staring endlessly at a bright computer screen. For the average 9-to-5er, a short jaunt through the parking lot to your car might be the peak of your daily physical activity.
We know that lack of exercise is bad for the human body. But what about all of that downtime you spend parked in a chair at work? What if that was just as deadly for your health—if not worse—than not hitting the gym?
It’s been estimated that Americans spend a whopping 56 hours each week sitting on our bums—slouched in front of computer screens, sprawled on the couch watching TV, hunched over the steering wheel. And our chair-bound lifestyles are killing us, quite literally. In recent years, the medical community has identified a new epidemic, fittingly dubbed “sitting disease,” that refers to the condition of prolonged sitting and its physiological and metabolical effects on the human body.
“Our bodies have evolved over millions of years to do one thing: move,” says James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and author of Move a Little, Lose a Lot. “As human beings, we evolved to stand upright. For thousands of generations, our environment demanded nearly constant physical activity.”
The repercussions of sitting disease are profound. In studies, excessive sitting has been linked to a host of health problems, including worsened mental health, a higher risk of heart disease, a greater incidence of type 2 diabetes, and weight gain. Too much chair time is also believed to lead to shorter lifespans—almost by as much as two years, studies have concluded. Beyond cardiovascular issues, habitual sitting wreaks havoc on our posture and spinal health, predisposing us to chronic neck and back pain.
If you think your nightly Zumba class renders you immune to sitting disease, think again. As hopeless as this might sound, not even daily gym excursions are enough to cancel out the adverse effects of our marathon sitting sessions. A growing body of research has found that individuals who spend the majority of their day glued to a seat are more apt to die at an earlier age than those who sit less—even if those sitters exercise. When your muscles are immobile, circulation slows. This means you use less of your blood sugar and burn less fat, in turn increasing your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Comparisons have even been drawn to smoking: Just as exercise can’t counteract the perils of smoking cigarettes, a daily 5K isn’t enough undo all those hours of sitting.
This, of course, is not to suggest that you should throw in the towel and stop exercising altogether—quite the contrary. Heart-pumping, calorie-burning exercise is undoubtedly crucial to our overall health and wellbeing, a powerful way to prevent nearly all disease states. However, diehard exercisers needn’t be complacent with the false assumption that they aren’t affected by sitting disease. Sitting is equally toxic to everyone, from marathon runners to couch potatoes.
“The human, simply put, was not designed to sit all day,” James A. Levine states in his essay “Health-Chair Reform,” published in the journal Diabetes.
So what’s a chair-bound office worker to do? Before ditching your desk job in order to salvage your health, know that there are several easy ways to ward off the dangers of sitting disease. The key is finding clever ways to incorporate more “mini movements” throughout the day, experts say. So as long as you seize every opportunity to move more at work—and continue to aim for 30 minutes of daily physical activity such as hiking, running, biking or swimming—you’ll greatly slash your risk of developing sitting-related health complications. Below are some simple ways to counter the negative effects of prolonged sitting:
1. Invest in a standing desk. Responding to the demand for healthier and more ergonomic workplaces, a number of companies have stepped up to the plate (or the table, as it were) with a number of adjustable standing desks. These functional, customizable work stations afford workers the choice of working while standing or sitting, so you can switch readily between the two. According to study conducted by the CDC, workers who utilized a sit-stand desk for two weeks experienced a marked reduction in back and neck pain, less stress and more energy. If you aren’t willing to shell out a small fortune for a standing desk—and we don’t necessarily blame you (they’re expensive!)—make your own makeshift standing desk by propping your laptop up on a tall box or bin.
2. Get up and move more. Make a concerted effort to get up every hour, whether’s it to refill your water bottle, go to the bathroom, or simply take a quick “lap” around the office. Or, rather than firing off an email to your coworker, physically get up off your bum and walk over to her cubicle to deliver the message. If you have a long phone call, pace while talking. It may sound trivial, but these little movements will add up, helping to increase blood flow, rev up your metabolism and ward off chair-induced muscle fatigue.
3. Encourage “walking meetings.” See if your colleague or client is willing to forgo a traditional meeting in lieu of a walking meeting. Take a brisk walk to the coffee shop a few blocks down. Even though it might sound like a strange and unconventional suggestion, you might be surprised to find that most people are open to this idea. While the two of you chat business, you’ll burn calories and get your heart rate up.
4. Sit on a stability ball-chair. If you feel funny about standing at work, consider purchasing a stability ball chair. These chairs automatically engage your abdominal muscles while you sit, allowing for more “active seating” than you’d get in a normal chair.
5. Take the stairs. Pledge to take the stairs rather than defaulting to the elevator. For a quick ten minute mini-workout during the workday, visit a restroom on a lower floor and then climb the stairs back up to your office.
6. Stretch. Get up periodically and touch your toes, shake your arms around, swivel your neck from side to side. You might look kinda silly, but who cares?The mere act of stretching will increase blood circulation throughout the body for an instant jolt of energy.
7. Get a fitness tracker and aim for 10,000 steps a day. Fitness trackers and pedometers keep you accountable and remind you of the importance of walking more throughout the day.