Prolonged Sitting Wrecks Your Health: Here’s What You Can Do About It


Dr. Mercola | Aug 5 2014

There is a growing scientific consensus that the more time you spend sitting, the shorter and less healthy your life may be. Excessive sitting, such as at a desk or in front of the TV, significantly impacts your cardiovascular and metabolic function.

This raises your risk for heart attack, type 2 diabetes, insomnia, arthritis, and certain types of cancer—and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Sitting for extended periods of time increases your risk for premature death. This is especially concerning given the fact that you may be vulnerable to these risks even if you are a fit athlete who exercises regularly.

One recent study correlated sitting time and TV viewing time with increased fibrinogen and C reactive protein, which helps explain this increased cardiovascular risk.1

Science now shows us that temporary vigorous exercise cannot compensate for the damage incurred by prolonged daily sitting.

It's becoming increasingly clear that intermittent movement is critical for health and longevity, even more so than a regular workout routine. In order to be healthy, you have to get up off your behind—and you have to do it often.  


Sitting: Your Brain's Mortal Enemy

Not only is excessive sitting detrimental to your physical health, but studies show it does nothing good for your mental health either.2, 3 Just like the rest of your body, your brain depends on strong blood flow, good oxygenation, and optimal glucose metabolism to work properly.

When you sit, your skeletal muscle fibers aren't contracting, particularly the large muscles of your lower limbs. When this occurs, they require less fuel, and the surplus glucose accumulates in your bloodstream and contributes to obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

An Australian study, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, set out to determine if prolonged sitting and lack of exercise have an effect on depression. Researchers analyzed the habits of nearly 9,000 women, ages 50 to 55, over several years' time.

Women who sat for more than seven hours a day were found to have a 47 percent higher risk of depression than women who sat for four hours or less per day.

Women who didn't participate in ANY physical activity had a 99 percent higher risk of developing depression than women who exercised. The findings were crystal clear: excessive sitting and lack of exercise resulted in an increase in depression symptoms among middle-aged women.4

Researchers concluded that increased physical activity could alleviate existing depression symptoms and possibly even prevent future symptoms. And reducing the amount of daily sitting time may relieve existing symptoms of depression.

Sitting Increases Psychological Distress, Decreases Feelings of Well-Being

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions about the mental effects of spending too much time on your derriere. British researchers reviewing data from a national wellness project found that spending leisure time on the computer and watching TV were associated with reduced feelings of well-being.5

The work habits of more than 3,000 government workers in Australia were studied, and those who spent more than six hours seated per workday were more likely to score higher in psychological distress than those sitting fewer than three hours, regardless of how active they were outside of work.6

Why does sitting have such a negative impact on your mental health? Psychology Today may be on to something:7

“Some of the psychological effects of sitting may be rooted in what people tend to do while in their chairs. They may stare at an electronic screen, rather than connecting emotionally with others. They may watch mindless TV shows, rather than engaging intellectually with the world. Or they may multitask ceaselessly—flitting between work emails, personal texts, social media, and the Internet—rather than honing their attention.”

Spending excess time at your computer may lead to insomnia and depression. A British study involving 25,000 people found that those working long hours in front of computers complained of feeling depressed, anxious, and reluctant to get up for work in the mornings. They found that working just five hours per day in front of a computer screen is enough to produce depression and insomnia.8

Sitting in Front of a Computer Is Bad for Your Child, Too!

It's already well established that insufficient physical activity is significantly contributing to our childhood obesity epidemic. But if your child spends a lot of time in front of an electronic screen, his or her mental health may also be at risk. In one UK study, excessive screen time produced negative effects on children's self-worth, self-esteem and level of self-reported happiness.

The children who spent four hours or more computer gaming reported lower levels of well-being than their peers who spent less time in this activity. Children spending more time in front of computer screens also experience more emotional distress, anxiety, depression, and behavioral difficulties.9

It is very difficult if not impossible to refrain from sitting altogether, given today's lifestyle. However, the good news is that there are some excellent strategies to help counter the effects of sitting—and they are not that difficult to learn and incorporate into your daily routine. So don't take this news sitting down!

Last summer, I interviewed Dr. Joan Vernikos,10 former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, about the hazards of chronic sitting and how to avoid succumbing to its effects. Space medicine has done quite a bit to help us understand why sitting is so detrimental. Dr. Vernikos was in fact one of the primary doctors assigned to keep NASA astronauts' health from deteriorating in space.

She explains that the human body deteriorates at a faster speed in anti-gravity situations, and as it turns out, sitting for an extended period of time actually simulates a low-gravity environment. On the other hand, physical movements such as standing up or bending down, increase the force of gravity on your body. Anti-gravity environments speed up cellular deterioration, so the key is to disengage from this low anti-gravity situation as much as possible by standing up and moving about. A reasonable goal is to get up every 15 minutes whenever you are engaged in prolonged seated activities.

Once involved in a project, it is admittedly rather difficult to remember to do this, so I have found an alarm is helpful. I personally use XNote timer, which can be downloaded for free. Once you download the software, go to the “More” section at the bottom of the application and click “Always On Top,” so that the app doesn't get buried in your computer. Then, click on “Timer” and set it to 15 minutes. Once you hit “Start,” in 15 minutes a flash will appear on your screen (not an annoying audible alarm) to remind you to stand up and perform the exercises.

Quick and Easy Workplace Workouts

The easiest strategy is to merely stand up, and then sit back down. But evidence suggests you'd be wise to go a little further—especially if you only exercise a few times a week or not at all. There are plenty of ways to increase your movement at work.

The following videos, featuring Jill Rodriguez, offer a series of helpful intermittent movement beginner and advanced exercises you can do right at your desk. For a demonstration of each technique, please see the corresponding video in the two tables below. I suggest taking a break to do one set of three exercises, anywhere from once every 15 minutes to once per hour. For even more  suggestions, please refer to our previous article on intermittent movement.

Technique #1: Standing Neck-Stretch: Hold for 20 seconds on each side.

Technique #2: Shoulder Blade Squeeze: Round your shoulders, then pull them back and pull down. Repeat for 20-30 seconds.

Technique #3: Standing Hip Stretch: Holding on to your desk, cross your left leg over your right thigh and “sit down” by bending your right leg. Repeat on the other side.

Technique #4: The Windmill: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, then pivot your feet to the right. Push your hip out to the left. Raising your left arm skyward, and your right arm toward the floor, lower your body toward the floor while looking up, and then raise your torso back to standing position. Repeat on the other side.

Technique #5: Side Lunge: Starting with your feet together, take a medium step sideways, and bend down as if you're about to sit. Use your arms for balance by reaching out in front of you. Return to starting position, and repeat 10-20 times. Repeat on the other side.

Technique #6: Desk Push-Up: Place hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart on your desk. Come up on your toes to make it easier to tip forward. Do 10 repetitions.

Technique #7: Squat to Chair: With your feet shoulder-width apart, sit down, reaching forward with your hands, and stand back up in quick succession. Do 15-20 repetitions.

Technique #8: Single Leg Dead Lift: Place your right hand on your desk, and place your weight on your right leg. Fold your torso forward, while simultaneously lifting your left leg backward. Do 10 repetitions on each side.

Technique #9: Mountain Climber: Get into a push-up position on the floor. Pull your right knee forward to touch your right wrist or arm, then return to push-up position. Repeat on the other side. Try to pick up the pace, and do 20 quick repetitions.

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