You may have heard it before, but just in case you haven’t, here it is again: Sitting is the new smoking. What does that even mean? Well, research in the last decade or so is increasingly showing that sitting for extended periods is incredibly dangerous to your health.
A meta-analysis of 47 studies, published in Annals of Internal Medicine in 2015, found that people who are sedentary—who spend most of their time sitting—were at greater risk for:
- Developing and dying from cancer
- Developing and dying from heart disease
- Early death
Additionally, sitting too much has been associated with chronic pain, especially lower back pain. For example, a 2015 study in PLoS One examined 200 blue-collar workers. The results suggested that, compared to those workers who had a low amount of sitting time, those who sat a lot were more than three times as likely to report high lower back pain intensity.
Why Sitting Hurts
The human body has not evolved to sit for long periods. We are a bipedal species. Our hearts, lungs and bowels all work better when we remain on two feet for as long as possible. Sitting, and an overall sedentary lifestyle, hurts our health in a number of direct and indirect ways.
Sitting too much can cause some of the muscles of the posterior chain—big muscles in the back of the body, in this case specifically the hamstrings and glutes—to become weaker. Also, because of the angle your body takes when you sit, your hip flexors can shorten. All of this means that your posture and walking mechanics will be thrown off.
Tight hip flexors will pull the pelvis down from the front, and a weak posterior chain is unable to balance out this pulling. The result is a pelvis that tilts downward, known as anterior pelvic tilt (APT). APT is a prominent cause of low back pain.
Back Pain and Weight Gain
Carrying extra weight does your body no favors. It puts stress on the bones, joints and muscles. Women who are obese run a four-times-greater risk of developing osteoarthritis than women who are not obese, and for obese men it’s five times higher.
Being overweight or obese is also linked to:
- Diabetes and metabolic disease
- Fatty liver disease
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Kidney disease
- Some cancers
It’s incredibly important to maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI). For a long time, it was thought that a sedentary lifestyle is a driver of weight gain, but that may not necessarily be the case. A 2017 meta-analysis of 31 studies published in Sports Medicine suggests that a sedentary lifestyle had no significant association with body weight.
What You Can Do
The Sports Medicine study is encouraging, but should not be taken to mean that you don’t have to worry about gaining weight or developing chronic conditions if you spend most of your day sitting. It is simply one piece in the scientific body of knowledge, and of course does not address all the other dangers of sitting too much that we’ve described.
Instead, you should be proactive in combating the negative health effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Keep these in mind throughout your work day, especially if your work involves sitting at a computer station for long periods.
- Stay active. Try and exercise at least three times a week for about 30 minutes a day. Walking is great, and is characterized as a “weight bearing exercise” that is good for your bones. When you have a sedentary job, making time to get some exercise is very important.
- Try and get up and move around at least once an hour, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
- Change your work position. See if you can get a standing work station, or one that changes from seated to standing.
- Good posture while seated is crucial. Keep both feet on the floor and knees at same height. Backs of legs should be supported. There should be a slight arch in the lower back and the mid back should be supported by the back of the chair.
- If you are having persistent back pain lasting more than a few weeks, contact your doctor and see if he or she thinks an evaluation is necessary.
If you have back pain, schedule an appointment with me. I can help you find out what’s causing your back pain and devise a treatment plan to address the root cause and stop symptoms. I’m also happy to help you develop a more active lifestyle that’s conducive to a healthy and pain-free life.