With the steady rise of digital technology, sitting has become the most common posture in the workplace. Most desk workers spend an average of 10 hours a day sitting in front of a computer, which leaves very little opportunity for physical activity throughout the day.
And unfortunately, as we’ve all been made aware, sitting can actually be extremely detrimental to your health—even more so than smoking, as some would claim.
To help you understand the sheer gravity of something as seemingly harmless as sitting down in a chair, this infographic by the Washington Post breaks down some of the most unsettling side effects of sitting all day—from the top of your head down to the tip of your toes.
Click to download a PDF of this infographic
Many of us have health issues that we attribute to bad genes, poor diet, or possibly even the environment. But now that we have a better understanding of the physiological effects of excessive sitting, it’s probably safe to say that our daily behaviors can also play a large role in our health problems.
Here are are some of the issues you may experience as a direct side effect of sitting too much:
It’s no secret that an inactive lifestyle can lead to increased weight gain. Too much sitting has been shown to decrease lipoprotein lipase (LPL) activity, which can have a negative impact on the body’s ability to burn fat. This leads to increased fat stores and encourages the use of carbohydrates (instead of fat) for fuel, and as a result, the body will continue to gain fat even while consuming a low-calorie diet.
Another obvious yet often ignored consequence of immobile sitting is poor circulation. Prolonged sitting time can slow down your circulation and cause blood to pool in the legs and feet, which can lead to varicose veins, swollen ankles, or even dangerous blood clots like deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
When our body burns less fat and blood circulation is poor, there’s an increased chance of fatty acids blocking the arteries in the heart. This links inactive sitting to elevated cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. In fact, a study has shown that men who spend more than 10 hours a week riding a car or over 23 hours a week watching television had 82% and 64% greater risk of suffering from heart disease compared to those who spent significantly less time on both activities.
Sitting all day loosens and weakens the muscles in the body, particularly those in the midsection and lower body. And without strong legs and glutes, our lower body becomes unable to hold us up when sitting down or keep us stable when walking and jumping, putting us at risk of injury. As they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
According to a 2017 study that examined the link between diabetes and total sitting time, there is a higher risk of diabetes in physically inactive people, with prolonged sitting being a major contributing factor. This is because decreased muscle mass and strength can result in lowered insulin sensitivity, which means that the cells respond slower to insulin (the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar levels). The lower the body's sensitivity to insulin, the higher the incidence of diabetes.
Aside from making our muscles more vulnerable to degenerating, prolonged sitting and slouching causes a variety of problems for your neck, shoulders, back, and hips. Your neck and shoulders curve and stiffen, your spine loses its flexibility as it absorbs pressure, and your pelvis rotates the wrong way, especially if you don’t use an ergonomic chair or already have bad posture to begin with.
The longer you sit and maintain bad posture, the more likely you are to experience chronic pain in areas such as your neck, shoulders, back, hips, and legs. Back pain is a prevalent health problem in the U.S. and is considered one of the most common job-related disabilities. In fact, according to a National Health Statistics Report by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), over 50% of American adults (125 million) have some type of musculoskeletal pain disorder—pain in the lower back, sciatica, neck, joints, as well as other related conditions—while 20.3% reported having lower back pain.
With all the mental work you’re doing at the office, you’d think your brain would be in tip-top condition. But if you’re sitting the whole time, the brain will be unable to get enough blood and oxygen, which it needs to function optimally. As a result, your brain function still slows down, and you don’t get to optimize your brain power. And when it doesn’t get enough glucose energy, brain cells may get damaged.
Another mental side effect of prolonged sitting is anxiety and depression. It’s easy to figure out why: those who sit all day don’t get to enjoy the health and mood-boosting benefits that come with exercise and staying fit. At the same time, being in front of the computer or TV all day limits sun exposure and social interaction, which leads to vitamin D deficiency and strong feelings of loneliness.
Perhaps the scariest side effect of prolonged sitting is the risk of getting lung, colon, breast, uterine, and endometrial cancers. The exact correlation is not clear, but it could be due to the fact that sedentary behavior can boost the production of insulin in the body, which encourages cell growth. Alternatively, regular physical activity tends to have an antioxidant effect in the body due to its ability to reduce oxidative stress. Possible cancer risks can also be linked to weight gain, changes in hormone levels, metabolic dysfunction, and inflammation—all of which can be exacerbated by sedentary behavior.
The side effects mentioned above are understandably worrisome, but it doesn’t mean you have to quit your desk job or stop watching movies and going on long car rides. Anybody can (and should) reduce the effects of their sedentary lifestyles by simply getting up and moving more.
Research shows that sweating it out regularly in the gym is not enough to offset the side effects of sitting at a desk for hours, so the best way is to really maintain a constant stream of activity throughout the day. You can do this by taking regular breaks or by using desk exercise equipment that can keep you moving while at work.
The SitFlow swing, for example, allows desk workers to keep their legs and feet moving even when they have to sit for long periods of time. It encourages "active sitting," which helps you burn more calories during your downtime while effectively counteracting the negative effects of your sedentary lifestyle.
Of course, it also helps to stay fit and find ways to increase your daily physical activity. It may take some getting used to, but if it can prevent you from suffering any sitting-related health issues, then it's certainly worth the effort.
Let’s try to keep in mind that we should work to live, instead of the other way around.
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