Our society is being plagued with the preventable, sitting disease. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity. The lack of physical activity is on the rise due to the fact that we are sitting more than we ever have.
By now, you have most likely heard the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking”. As the number of sedentary jobs have increased 83% since 1950, not only are we sitting more at work, but we are also sitting on our commutes, when we eat meals, and during our leisure or relaxing activities. A typical office worker can sit around a total of 15 hours a day!
While the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking” has grown in popularity in the past few years, it is not entirely accurate. If you look at our society as a whole, sitting is actually worse than smoking.¹ Dr. James Levine, the director of the Mayo Clinic at Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative explains that “sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting.”²
It only takes two continuous hours of sitting to see an increase in the risk of suffering from an avoidable, lifestyle disease.¹ ³
“We are sitting ourselves to death” – Dr. James Levine²
Not only are we witnessing the harmful effects of sitting on our bodily functions, but also myriad of musculoskeletal pains and injuries.
Effects of this sitting disease on our bodies
We can look at how this disease affects us, both from a physiological and musculoskeletal standpoint.
Physiologically- our bodily functions
The most obvious symptom of the sitting disease is obesity. The more we sit, the less energy we expend, and the more fat we store.
But this disease goes beyond obesity. It is known to create actual changes in the cellular makeup of our muscles while also causing or increasing the risk of¹ ⁴:
● Heart disease
○ High blood pressure
○ High cholesterol
● Premature death
“Fundamental changes in biology occur if you sit too long”¹
At the cellular level, the cells that make up our muscles are constantly responding to their environment. If we sit all day and barely contract our muscles, they will adapt to this. Even if you work out for an hour each day, that does not stop the negative effects that come from sitting for 8-10 hours at work. Your muscles are spending the most time in a non-contracted, non-working state.
Let’s continue down the cellular path. The changes that our cells go through while sitting too much actually inhibit different genes (located inside of our cells) that break down triglycerides and modulate glucose metabolism. As we sit, our own cells change and genes stop performing the tasks they are supposed to do!
When it comes to a decrease in breaking down of triglycerides and a slowing of glucose metabolism, our risk of high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes rises.⁵
As we sit, not only do our cells stop doing what they are supposed to be doing, but our body’s normal processes are stalled or stopped completely. Our cells and therefore our muscles stop moving and using fats and sugars and we inevitably store this as excess fat and we see our blood sugar levels and cholesterol numbers start to rise.
It does not take much time for these changes to happen. Even after just one day of sitting, someone with overall healthy cholesterol levels can experience a spike high enough to be well within the levels of someone that has heart disease. If one continues with this day after day, without changing their sitting habits, the risk of heart disease and having a heart attack increases.¹ ⁴
Metabolic, lifestyle diseases are not the only thing to be concerned about. Cancer may seem like a shocking symptom of the sitting disease. However, according to the American Cancer Association and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), greater amount of sitting time is linked with higher rates of cancer. Specifically in the study published in JAMA, the participants that had spent the most hours sitting were 82% more likely die from cancer than those in the group that sat the least.⁶
Honestly, no matter how you look at it, whether this sitting disease is affecting your heart, raising your blood sugar and cholesterol, or causing an increase in the risk of cancer, the risk of premature death rises significantly with sitting. People who sit for more than 11 hours each day have a 40% increase in chance of premature death than people that sit for 4 hours or less.¹
Musculoskeletal- the aches and pains of this sitting disease
Besides the fact that this disease can wreak havoc on our physiological processes, it can also hinder our musculoskeletal system, especially the low back.
Low back pain is one of the most common injuries that results from prolonged sitting.
Because of the very minimal dynamic movement and activation of the low back muscles while sitting, the load and stress is transferred to other parts of the spine, like our spinal discs and ligaments.⁷ These structures are not meant to bear constant load for prolonged periods of time like our muscles, especially our postural muscles, are. Ultimately, sitting disease leads to disuse and weakening of our musculoskeletal system. ⁷ ⁸ And, this continues the pain cycle.
How to overcome the sitting disease
Is it possible to overcome this man-made sitting disease? Well, exercise may seem like the no brainer answer. If you have to sit 8 hours a day at work, not including the time you sit for other normal daily activities, but you work out for 30-60 minutes each day, then you must be okay!
Research upon research proves that exercising regularly does not combat the negative effects of the sitting disease.
The basic premise is that sitting too much is not the same as lack of exercise and, as such, has its own unique metabolic consequences. ⁴
The same cellular and genetic research mentioned above, also demonstrated that exercise is not enough to combat the effects of sitting and that a balance of muscle inactivity and high duration, low intensity physical activities is more beneficial when compared to sitting all day with 30-60 minutes of high intensity exercise.⁵
In more simple words, a combination of sitting and frequent, long bouts of low intensity exercise, movement, or physical activity is more beneficial in helping to overcome the negative effects of the sitting disease when compared to sitting all day and then exercising really hard for an hour or so.⁴ ⁵
To truly overcome this sitting disease, we need to sit less. Sitting less is easier said than done. We can’t help the fact that we have a commute to work, that it is socially acceptable to sit and eat at the dinner table, and that most of us are desk bound at work. But we can help the fact by incorporating active sitting in addition to regularly scheduled work breaks.
Active sitting allows you to continuously use your postural muscles to stay balanced and comfortable in your chair. Using a chair, like the Symbiotic Chair, that has a balancing mechanism allows you to use your core while the chair moves with and follows you. This a simple, yet effective way to add long duration, low-intensity physical activity to your work day.
Clearly, our bodies are adaptable and respond to our environment. Set yourself up for success and for your best chance at living a long and healthy life but incorporating active sitting and overall, more low intensity physical activity throughout your work day.
Don’t let this sitting disease bring you down.
Author: Adria Biasi
Author is US based Doctor of Physical Therapy and Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist
1) James A. Levine. Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014): 70-71.