With many staying closer to home right now it’s not surprising if you’re feeling a little too glued to your couch or computer screen. Kim Schlessinger, ANP, an occupational health nurse and the director of Samaritan’s Employee Health & Safety Program, sheds some light on the effects of sitting too much and offers tips to boost your activity levels.
How Sitting Affects Your Body
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults spend between six and a half and eight hours a day sitting on average. The group also reports that too much time sitting is associated with premature death; chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer; and obesity.
Research published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that people who sat for more than six hours a day were more likely to have chronic disease and diabetes than those who sat less than four hours a day. Additional studies have found that people who are obese sit for an average of two hours a day longer than their lean counterparts.
“The problem with sitting is really two-fold,” said Schlessinger. “When you’re sitting you aren’t doing other activities so your body is losing out on that time it could be moving. Sitting can also actively hurt you by putting pressure on the bones in your spine and weakening the muscles that support your frame.”
Add up the amount of time that you spend driving, working, eating, texting and watching TV and you might be appalled at how sedentary you’ve become.
Schlessinger reports that sitting places pressure on your back muscles, while poor posture can strain the discs in your spine and lead to degeneration over time.
Your thoracic spine, the part of your back from the base of your neck down to your abdomen, is responsible for bending, lifting and twisting. A study in the BMJ Open found that those who spent more than seven hours a day sitting and less than 150 minutes a week exercising were less flexible in the thoracic spine. That can lead to a higher risk of injury in the lower back and neck. In fact, Schlessinger reports poor posture is a leading cause of low back pain while sitting.
Additionally, while you are sitting, the largest muscle group in your body gets a break. The gluteal muscles (buttocks) and your leg muscles aren’t working and can lose strength, making it harder when you do stand up.
Counteract the Effects of Sitting
The good news is that research published in the journal Lancet found that just because you have a desk job or watch TV, it doesn’t mean you are destined for ill health. Doing some form of moderate intensity exercise every day can help offset the health risks of sitting.
Researchers conducted a meta-analysis that reviewed 13 different studies on more than 1 million people evaluating the effects of sitting and death. They found that people who sat for eight hours or more during the day but were considered very active did not have any higher risk of death than those who sat for less than four hours and were also very active.
Schlessinger notes that being very active — more than 60 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise — is the key if you sit most of the day.
“Exercise that gets the heart rate up, strengthens your muscles and improves your cardiovascular fitness is really crucial,” she said.
- Practicing good posture with a mind to ergonomics can be a big back saver. Whether you’re on the couch at home, driving, or at work in front of a screen, Schlessinger notes good body mechanics can keep you free from injury. Keep your head balanced above your shoulders with eyes level to avoid neck strain — no slouching forward or jutting your chin.
- When using a computer, use a chair with high back support and that you can adjust to fit your height.
- Talk to your employer about an ergonomic evaluation of your workstation. If you’re working from home assess your work space, it may be time for a new chair or desk.
- When sitting, support your lower back with lumbar support from a chair or a small pillow or rolled up towel. Legs should be parallel to the floor, feet resting on the floor or a footrest.
- Use good posture while sitting at home even if you’re just watching TV. Reclining in an easy chair or lying on the couch may feel relaxing but it can put more pressure on your spine and neck if your body isn’t properly centered and supported, according to Schlessinger. Pay attention when you lay down that your head and neck aren’t curled forward, which can strain the muscles. Reclining can put pressure on your low back — use a pillow for support if you need it.
To help counteract the effects of sitting make a little effort to plan movement into your day.
- At home, try to be active during leisure time. Researchers seem to find the intensely sedentary nature of TV the most damaging to health, according to Schlessinger. Instead, try filling your free time with hobbies and daily living activities.
- Daily exercise is important for everyone, but especially those who spend a lot of time sitting. The CDC recommends at least 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise like walking, jogging, swimming, cycling or a fitness class. For people who sit more than six hours, shoot for 60 minutes a day.
- If you sit at a desk for work, stand up and stretch and readjust your posture every 15 minutes. Take a short walk every 30 minutes, even if it’s just to the end of your row or across the room – the key is to avoid sitting for hours on end. If you own a smart watch you may be able to set reminders to get up and move. Use your lunch break for taking longer walks. Conference calls can also present a chance to “walk and talk” instead of taking these calls at your desk.
- Be mindful about finding ways to add extra activity to your routines. Parking at the end of the parking lot or taking the stairs instead of an elevator.
“We’ve found that moving often — to adjust your posture and to stand and stretch every once in a while — is the best way to take care of your health and is also a boost for mood and productivity,” said Schlessinger.
Find out small changes you can make to daily routines to increase your activity levels.
Learn how you can relieve neck and back strain at your desk or work station.