Home Health and Fitness The Surprising Hazards of Sitting Too Much

The Surprising Hazards of Sitting Too Much

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By Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW

By now, you’ve certainly heard that most of us don’t exercise enough. There is a specific element of exercising too little, though, which deserves special mention, and that’s the issue of sitting too much. Lack of exercise increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, andvarious cancers, but if you regularly sit for many uninterrupted hours at a time, that risk is increased even further. 

Let’s say you luck out and manage to sidestep all those ugly medical consequences. What you probably won’t escape is the colorfully named “dead butt syndrome,” in which you experience vague, chronic discomfort in the tissues that are most compressed and inactive when you sit for long periods of time. 

Unfortunately, regular exercise will not protect you from these problems if you still spend most of the rest of your time sitting. There’s even a name for those who sit through most of their lives except for discreet bursts of intentional exercise: “active couch potatoes.” Fortunately, the hazards of sitting too much can be avoided simply by incorporating more general movement into the rest of your day. Get up often, stand when you can, walk when you can, and stretch when you can. Create opportunities for these simple acts all day long.

Consider this suggestion by Alan Hedge, Ph.D., Professor of Ergonomics at Cornell University: For each 30 minute period, aim to sit for no more than 20 minutes, stand for eight minutes, and move around for two minutes. This is fairly easy to accomplish in a couple of general ways. 

Choose to Stand More Often

Standing more of the time is probably the easiest when it comes to being on the phone, especially if you’re on hold. If you’re having a conversation which requires you to take notes, look for a horizontal surface that allows you to write at a convenient height and handle the call there. If you don’t need to take notes or go through files while you’re on the phone, try slowly pacing a bit or even just rocking back and forth from one foot to the other. Try doing some slow, high-knee marching steps. Consider some simple stretches. You’ll probably find that actions like these not only offer important health benefits, they also help you feel a lot better in the moment when you do them. It feels good to move, and it’s easy to forget that when you get rooted in place for too long at a time. 

You can stand while accomplishing many common tasks, like going through mail, reading ad circulars, or sorting through the pile of stuff on your desk. Even if you’re involved in a task that absolutely requires prolonged sitting, you can still take a break to stand every now and then, just for a minute.

Get in the habit of asking yourself questions like these: Do I have to be sitting right now? Could I do some parts of this while standing? How long has it been since the last time I moved around? Can I take a quick break to stand and stretch for a minute right now?

Practice Intentional Inefficiency

Conventional time management doctrine tells us to batch tasks in order to make the most efficient use of our time. However, we now understand that doing this too well results in longer bouts of uninterrupted sitting time, adding to the unintended health consequences described above. Even efficiency, it seems, is best done in moderation.

The solution is to purposely alternate sitting tasks and standing/moving tasks throughout your day. Take a quick walking break for each of a number of minor tasks (refilling your coffee, getting something from another room, bathroom break, etc.) rather than batching them together in fewer trips. Look for any reason to get up and take a few steps, and do it frequently. When you’re walking, take the longway around when you can. Take stairs instead of the elevator when you can. These are all simple ways to keep your muscles more engaged throughout your day even though a lot of that day might involve sitting.

This is important no matter how active or sedentary you are in general. If you’re someone who’s lucky to get in 1000 steps daily, for example, you’re better off spacing them throughout the whole day than you are to go for a short walk, get them all done at once, and then sit for the rest of the day except for occasionally moving from one room to another. Your body desperately needs you to be moving more than that, by the way, but if you’re not, at least make sure you get up often from sitting. It really matters. 

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Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW has been a certified diver since 2000. She is a psychotherapist and community educator who has written extensively on topics of interest to anyone seeking to maximize their health and overall enjoyment of life, though her primary specialty is the treatment of overeating. She recently published “Why We Overeat and How to Stop,” (available at Amazon.com), a new approach to overeating which empowers readers to end the cycle of yo-yo dieting once and for all. She resides in southwestern Pennsylvania where she spends as much time as possible outdoors, preferably on, in, or near water. She can be reached through www.elizabethbabcock.com. and on Facebook.