Sitting is the worst thing for you except for everything else

Sitting is bad

Consider the human behavior that we call sitting. Notice what’s going on all around you. Our environments largely reflect that so much of our work and leisure involves prolonged sitting. Sitting has been implicated in numerous orthopedic problems like headaches and disc herniations. You do not have to earn a PhD in biomechanics to confirm all the protruding heads, C-shaped spines, and extremities that have adapted to the chair position.

A recent study by the American Heart Association found that whether or not you exercise, long sedentary periods raise your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. In other words, a lunch time jog does not make up for a typical day of sitting at work or class, and in the car, and while eating and reading and watching TV.  In 2010, British experts linked prolonged periods of sitting to a greater likelihood of disease, and Australian researchers reported that each hour spent watching TV is associated with an 18% increase in the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Blaming the chair

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 2.58.51 PMIn the United States, the science of ergonomics is generally considered to have originated during World War II. Since then, both the medical community and furniture companies have attempted to design safe chairs, desks, and anything else needed to perform repetitive sedentary work.

Numerous ball-shaped chairs, kneeling chairs, and ultra adjustable chairs have been proposed. These are definite improvements with some degree of scientific and plenty of anecdotal evidence for effectiveness. Yet many ergonomic solutions spare one part of the body at the expense of another, don’t fit properly at common table heights, or have an odd appearance that is unacceptable for a professional workplace. Other ergonomic chairs simply don’t accomplished what most people still want: enabling us to sit still and comfortably accomplish work.

It is my opinion that we are asking far too much from our chairs. The research seems to indicate that a healthy chair is an oxymoron. We may as well be talking about designing a low-impact hammer or the best Oreo for weight loss.

At this point, the conversation on Sitting Disease warrants some perspective.

Lesser of evils

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 2.58.56 PMI imagine ages past when people hoped for a time when less strenuous work would allow them or their children to lead happy and healthy lives. These days, we are far less optimistic about that idea. Only recently have we began to understand some of the risks of white-collar work.

Sitting is not the only thing that is taxing on the body. The far majority of humans throughout history have had to perform more or less repetitive physical labor, rarely by choice. In modern times, blue-collar workers of all ages are in worse health than white-collar workers, even after controlling for socioeconomic variables. Blue collar workers are more likely to suffer from arthritis and report 3.4 more musculoskeletal injuries per one hundred workers. At age 65, blue-collar men score a mortality rate 42 percent higher than white-collar men.

When the daily grind involves repetitive lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, kneeling, and operating heavy machinery, a good sit is legitimately therapeutic.Who among us hasn’t been there after even a few hours of yard work?

“Ahhh. The chair.”

The average American has far more leisure time than ever. We have the time and freedom to choose whether or not we want to watch TV, exercise, or otherwise fight back against what ails us.

The problems

When researchers closely examine the evidence, much of the data shows that it is physical inactivity, and not necessarily just sitting, that is unhealthy in various ways. And we already know that too much of anything is bad for us, and extensive sitting happens to be our default mode of sedentary living.

Sedentary living is undeniably linked with sitting, and modern society demands sitting long and often. But the fact of the matter is that our bodies gradually break down and fail us. If not from sitting, we would likely suffer repercussions from months and years of farming, hanging drywall, sorting packages, standing on cement, or some other task.

Some not-quite solutions

  1. All movement counts! Be mindful of the realities of sitting for the majority of the day. Do not take the threat of sitting down…sitting down. Work with focus and efficiency, but don’t get “locked in.” Fidget, stand, kneel, walk and move as if your life depended on it, because it does. Search the keyword NEAT (Non-exercise activity thermogenesis). Fascinating evidence is emerging that every small movement does count.
  2. Exercise Smarter! If many of your waking hours involve sitting, for heaven’s sake, don’t sit during the time you allocate to exercise. For example, the seated leg extension machine, the bicep curl machine, and the recumbent bike are not your best choices at the gym unless you have a specific disability or other good reason for using them. I’m an advocate of exercises like squat and lunge variations, step-ups, shoulder presses, and pretty much anything where you must practice good posture, balance, and control the movement of multiple body segments against gravity.
  3. Work Smarter! Schedule breaks from sitting, stretch, and take the requisite time and effort to create an environment that enables you to work efficiently over the long haul. Stand up and move or do something different for 10 minutes out of every hour. Remind employers that an ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure. For instance, when the Take-a-stand protocol was introduced to a large number of sedentary workers, the time spent sitting was reduced by and average of 64 minutes per day and health care costs were reduced by 34%.
  4. Mandatory Posture Lecture! As a physical therapist it is my duty and obligation to lecture you about posture. If only you could see my hypocritical posture as I type this! Why is it so difficult not to slouch? Gravity, our ancient friend and foe, is relentless. Stretching, strength training, “adjustments” and ergonomic chairs all only provide the potential to sit and stand with good posture. In the end, the only way to actually achieve good posture is relentless attention to sitting and standing with good posture. 

Don’t stay in any one positions for too long, and don’t give up. Variety, the spice of life, is also good medicine!

Given this problem with no easy or complete solutions, one of the most powerful things we have is gratitude. We can envision a narrow road that lies between the broad paths of sedentary living and backbreaking manual labor. With the perspective and time we have been granted to learn and engage in activities that do not involve chairs, maybe we can even be thankful for our place to sit.


References available upon request.

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