Inactivity or Sitting? Is sitting all day really killing you or is it just all hype?
If you have a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account, follow any health posts or health gurus then you have probably read headlines like “Is sitting the new smoking?”, “Why sitting is killing you?” or possibly “Is sitting to blame for all of the worlds problems?”. Ok that last one I just made up but with all of these headlines you could be convinced to never sit again and spend the rest of your days standing up.
The short answer is, yes, sitting for too long is not great for you. But neither is standing or standing on your head or hopping or anything else for that matter. But I believe it inactivity that is the real issue. Our modern lives mean that we have to sit for some periods of time so we can’t totally avoid it. Limiting the amount we sit for extended periods will definitely have health benefits.
A lot of these articles are pointing to standing as being the cure all for all of the sitting based health problems. Through my research it is interesting to find that there is also lots of information on how dangerous standing all day can be for you and most of the health problems are the same such as heart disease, lower back pain and poor circulation. There are regulations on how long some one should stand for under work cover and for many jobs sitting was introduced to reduce the health effects of standing all day. Sounds familiar right, although topsy turvy.
Getting health benefits from standing all day implies that you will be standing in a correct posture, shoulders back and down, hips square, eyes at the level of the monitor. Who can sit up straight for extended periods let alone stand up straight?? I can see overused hip muscles and aching lower backs from people standing with more weight on one leg or hunching over their desks.
In this article I’ll try to get past the sensational headlines and get to the real issues behind the hype. Let’s have a look.
Here are the facts at this point in time…
If you have ever worked in an office environment then you'll be no stranger to posture related pain or repetitive strain. These are well documented and we have a whole system setup called Workcover that spends millions of dollars a year on treatment for these issues. But you may not realise that sitting all day can cause a whole bunch more problems.
Some of these problems include:
Reduced metabolism - movement increases your metabolism.
Higher risk of cardio-vascular disease
Musculoskeletal pain especially neck, shoulder and lower back pain.
Eye problems - looking at the same distance all day i.e.: your computer monitor.
reduced oxygen intake as your diaphragm is constantly being squashed when you sit
lack of concentration
the list goes on.
Basically sitting for extended periods of time without moving is being touted as the next smoking. For me this is a bit of a stretch. Smoking causes major health problems in nearly every organ and generally significantly reduces your life expectancy. Not only this there is the whole passive smoking issue. If you decide to smoke in a public place then you are also polluting other people's environment - causing other people health issues. I haven't seen any articles written on passive sitting yet but maybe that will be the next craze.
So how long do you sit per day? Or maybe the question should be how long don't you sit for and work backwards. Most people sleep for 8 hours which is part of our human needs so that leaves 16 hours to play with. If you work for 8 hours then you probably sit for close to 8 hours. Let's be generous and say you are up and about, going out for lunch, going to the toilet etc for 1 hour. That's 7 hours. So what are you doing for the rest of that time? Catching public transport to work or driving. Sitting down to eat dinner. Watching TV. Working more from home (laptop into the wee hours)
Lets have a look at these tables below to get an idea of your daily activity vs inactivity. Which one looks like you?
Mostly inactive - very inactive
Somewhat more active - walks the dog and walks to public transport.
Very active - goes to the gym, walks to public transport and walks the dog
So as you can see even if you go to the gym, walk to public transport and then walk the dog you are still inactive for 20 hours. 12 of these hours are potentially sitting. Thats a lot. According to a study by Lousianna University and Harvard Medical School, that compiled data of many studies, we can add 2 years to our life expectancy by sitting less than 3 hours per day. If you are sitting more than this then your life expectancy will defnately be reduced. If you smoke as well then you are really in a mess. Whether the cause of this is just sitting or if it is inactivity related is yet to be studied.
The question I would like to ask is who can sit for less than 3 hours per day?
Is sitting the problem or is it inactivity?
There have been a lot of studies and articles related to the effects of sitting but I feel that it isn’t sitting in itself that is so bad, it is the inactivity. A lot of businesses are throwing money at the sitting problem and investing in stand up desks. This seems to be the most common way companies are targeting the problem. But standing up all day is still inactivity. Unless you are walking on a treadmill you are still basically just standing still all day (and yes there are treadmill desks you can get, see picture)
I think the solution is a combination of sitting and standing throughout the day combined with moving around the office the get the blood pumping. When on the phone you could go for a little stroll around the office, go to the toilet on a different floor and take the stairs. Get out at lunch and either go to gym, go for a run/walk, Yoga, Pilates or whatever you can do to keep moving.
An Australian study by Professor David Dustan showed the longer you sit the greater your risk of dying early. Adults who sit for 11 hours a day have a 40% higher risk of dying within 3 years compared to people who sit for 4 hours per day.
Eeek. So get moving!
Is standing the panacea that will save the world?
Lots of offices are now investing in standup desks and employees are getting the option to sit or stand during the day.
Let’s have a look at the potential issues that standing all day may have.
Increased foot, ankle, knee and hip pain. Remember that when you are sitting all day you don't really use the lower limb. This can cause problems like weakness and tightness as well as nerve compression and poor circulation. But take those weak and tight muscles and connective tissues and now get them to support your body weight by standing up all day. It is a recipe for a whole bunch of new injuries (rubbing my hands together).
Increase risk of varicose veins in the lower leg.
Some links to increased heart disease (though this is also linked to sitting and inactivity).
Lower back pain
Heel pain, bone spurs and plantar fasciitis.
Bunions or corns. Though bunions aren't caused by standing, standing all day on a bunion will certainly make it worse.
Some people already stand all day are they better off?
Well I for one don't sit all day. As a muscle therapist I am on my feet and active for most of my 8 hour work day. I would only spend around 2 hours seated throughout this time. The benefit of this work is that not only am I standing but I am also constantly moving. So am I better off? Well I still get aches and pains. Mostly lower back and feet. Clients are always asking if my hands get sore but I would have to say that my feet, hips and lower back would bear most of the brunt of my active standing job.
The idea that standing all day is better for you implies that people are standing with correct posture. How many people sit with correct posture? I can only imagine the amount of overuse injuries in the hips from leaning on one side or the lower back pain from slumping forward with your full body weight on your lumbar spine.
Jobs such as retail, cashiers, factory workers, cleaners, sales people, nurses, doctors in hospitals, surgeons, Chiropractors, Physiotherapists, Osteopaths and many more already stand all day so it may be worth looking into the health of these industries to see what health issues they have.
Something that occurs to me is that one reason we decided to sit down at all is because standing was giving us aches and pains. Sayings like “take a load off” or “my feet are killing me” come to mind. These are related to standing up for long periods of time.
Like many things in the health industry we have amnesia regarding the not so distant past. Suddenly eating clean, organic food is all the rage. Well throughout history thats all people had to eat before food science developed all these potentially harmful additives that could make food last longer. Now processed foods are out and clean is in. Sitting is out and standing is in. In 10 years when all the workforces are complaining about sore feet, varicose veins and lower back pain we will have to develop an amazing new invention call the, wait for it…. sit down desk.
Whatever works for you is the best and if you find standing all day is better for you than sitting then go for it. Just be mindful that good posture is important and that taking a rest and sitting for sometime is also beneficial. The main point is to get moving and not stay still for more than about 30 minutes or in reality whatever you can manage.
What can we do? Are we really doomed? Should I just take up smoking?
No!!! Don't take up smoking. Basically we have to move and move often. Get up throughout the day and move. Pace about while you're on a call, get off zoom if possible. Get out of your chair and go for a walk at lunch. Find those incidental steps, walk or cycle to work.
Now with more people working from home it is getting harder to find those incidental steps and movements. More meetings are back to back and at home so you often don't even have time to go to the toilet. It comes down to how much you value movement and your health. If this is important to you then find some time, get up and get moving!