Are we sitting ourselves to death?

If we sit too often and for too long, the health consequences can be dire.

10 October 2014
by Lucy Parker

We spend more time sitting than we do sleeping - 9.3 hours on average versus 7.7 - and, from head to toe, it’s causing all manner of ills. Speaking at a TEDX conference in 2012, author and Sillicon Valley businesswoman Nilofer Merchant famously touted sitting as “the smoking of our generation”. She said the “tech” we use most - our “tushes” - is causing more damage than cars, the internet and our mobile phones.

How sitting is harming us

A study published in the journal Circulation last year, looked at nearly 9 000 Australians and found that for each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent.

Sitting is associated with heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, muscle and joint problems, and even cancer, says Dr Charlotte Louise Enslin, a general practitioner in private practice at the Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town. It’s directly tied to six percent of the impact for heart disease, seven percent for Type 2 diabetes, and 10 percent for breast cancer, and colon cancer.

“Also, few people sit up straight with their stomachs pulled in, which results in poor posture,” says Dr Enslin. “Craning your neck while looking at the computer screen or twisting your neck to cradle a phone can lead to muscle strain or stiff neck, back and shoulder muscles.”

We’re designed to move – structurally and physiologically, says Iain Sykes, a physiotherapist at the University of Cape Town’s Sports Injuries Clinic. The overall health and wellbeing of our musculoskeletal system is dependent on contracting and relaxing, closing and opening. Our digestive, cardiovascular and pulmonary systems also require positional changes and motion to function correctly. “Plonking our butts in a chair for hours on end negatively effects all of these structures,” says Sykes.

Fewer studies have examined sitting’s association with mental wellbeing. However, researchers reviewing data from a national wellness project in the UK in 2012 found that, for both sexes, spending lots of non-work time on the computer was associated with lower mental wellbeing.

Get moving right now!

If you have a desk job, find opportunities to add more activity breaks to your day. According to Dr Enslin, we all need to get up at least every 45 to 60 minutes and move for at least one minute — but ideally for about five minutes. Plan regular short breaks, set a reminder on your computer screen or TV, warning you to take a screen break. Even small things count: getting up when your phone rings, walking to make your own photocopies, taking the stairs instead of the lift or eating lunch while standing can make all the difference.

Merchant advocates walking meetings. Now, instead of conference rooms and coffee meetings, she invites people to go on walking meetings, “to the tune of 20-30 miles a week.” She’s not only improved her health and fitness levels, but getting out the office “box” has helped her with out-the-box thinking, fresh ideas and problem-solving.

You could even consider treadmill desks, standing desks or ergonomic chairs to offset the dangers of over-sitting.

It’s also important to make time for the gym or a regular run. Good stretching exercise like yoga or Pilates can help by improving core strength and posture, and basic aerobic exercise is an all-important booster.