Is sitting the new smoking (and is there a solution)?

Credit: iStock
Credit: iStock

We spent seven hours per day sitting for seven years of primary school and another five of high school, only to follow a continued sedentary position in the office.

In fact, most of us lead a sedentary lifestyle and are guilty of not doing anything about it. Even with that perfectly cushioned office chair, we don't make an effort to give our bodies a break away from it.

You're probably sitting as you're reading this article, ignoring how agitated your body has become. And if you're in the office, this might follow some downtime in front of the TV or PC.

Read more: This quickie workout is perfect for when you can’t get to the gym

Contrary to what we may believe, our bodies don't like to sit for long periods.

This Health24 article sums it up perfectly: the more you sit, the sooner you may die.

While sitting for brief periods is necessary and can reduce stress levels and recuperate from exercise, our bodies aren't built to be still for 8–10 hours, says physiotherapist Najmeera Parker.

In order for circulation to take place, our blood depends on us to move around regularly, but when you sit for long periods of time, this causes your lungs to have less space to expand into when you breathe, which essentially means you're temporarily limiting the amount of oxygen that fills your lungs and filters into your blood, explains this TED-Ed talk.

And the slumped position most of us sit in puts uneven pressure on our spine, leading to wear and tear of the spinal discs over time. 

"When in the sitting position, more strain is placed on the spine than when in standing," explains Parker.

"Often when sitting in front of a PC, the most common posture is of one's head poking forward, rounded shoulders and a hunched back.

"This places tension on the entire spine and shoulders resulting in pain and stiffness. Majority of lower back pain sufferers have a history of prolonged sitting postures," she adds.

And if you manage to damage your spinal chord, you can lose the ability to move any part of your body.

It is also the responsibility of the individual to take care of their health. Every person requires something different.

If you often start to lose concentration over a long period of sitting, it's not all in your head. Being stationary reduces blood flow and the amount of oxygen entering your blood stream through your lungs. 

And because circulation is reduced during prolonged sitting, it also increases the risk of swollen limbs and fatigue, says Parker.

The TED-Ed video explains that your brain needs this to remain alert, so it's likely that, because your brain activity slows down, your concentration levels will begin to drop. But that's just the short-term effects.

Studies over the years have shown that the long-term effects is linked to certain cancers as well as heart disease. Diabetes, kidney and liver problems are also part of the effects.

And a more recent study by the Annals of Internal Medicine last year supports these findings. 

In fact, research has revealed that worldwide, inactivity causes 9% – more than five million people – of premature deaths per year.

We spoke to Jeannine Scheltens, head of HR at about whether there is any policy on employees taking frequent 'micro-breaks' from their desks.

"In totality, as a company, our policy is quite flexible and one that you can adapt to your working life," she says.

"I don’t think any manager would not be okay with someone saying they need to catch a five-minute break.

"It is also the responsibility of the individual to take care of their health. Every person requires something different.

"You don’t need to take a full 60-minute lunch break. You can take 30 minutes and divide the other 30 minutes into six 5-minute breaks throughout the day.

"As long as you know you’ve worked in your 40 hours per week, it should be fine to take breaks from your desk," she adds.

Read more: Stuck at work? Try these stretches at your desk

That we are taught that a resting position is a chair is dangerous, says fitness expert Roger Frampton in his TED talk.

Frampton also notes that according to the British Chiropractic Association, the total number of people off sick from work with back pain increased by 29% in 2016. The reason? Sitting too long in one position. 

Another thought-provoking fact he draws attention to: nothing can ever compare to the exquisite movement you had as a three-year-old.

This is what happens when you sit:

So not only does your calorie burning rate drop significantly, but after a few weeks of constant sitting, your 'bad cholesterol' level increases your chance of weight gain.

Read more: I tried 7 intense fitness classes in Cape Town - how I chose my favourite

More than that, the scary part of it all is that exercise after work doesn't necessarily counteract the negative effects, but below are a few tips on what you can do to help your body.

Dealing with a sedentary work style

Set a reminder to yourself to get up every 30 or 60 minutes for at least five minutes, and do a few stretches, says Parker.

Negate these effects by drinking plenty of water – this will mean you'll have to use the loo more often, which will force you to leave your desk for a few minutes. 

"Try to walk around the office," adds Parker, "and take the stairs instead of the lift. Correct ergonomics of your workspace can also help to prevent unwanted complications." 

Don't wreck havoc on your body and bear in mind that that bit of walking will be substantial. Finally, if you have a sedentary work style, aim to do these quick but useful stretches when you get home every day:

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