Sitting is something most Americans do in abundance, especially with the so much time and step-saving technology available. If you work a desk job, even if you work at home on a computer, you probably spend a portion of your day sitting. You might try to compensate for too much time sitting by doing a structured workout. That’s certainly important but studies are mixed as to whether a formal exercise session is enough to make up for hours of sitting in a chair. People at most risk are those that sit too much for six or more hours daily. Why is sitting harmful? Let’s look at eight things that happen when you sit too long.
Muscle Imbalances in the Lower Body
When you sit too much for prolonged periods of time, your hip flexors tighten and the opposing muscles, the hip extensors lengthen and become weaker. This type of muscle imbalance increases the risk of sports injuries and lower back pain. In severe cases, excessive sitting can lead to chronic hip flexor shortening, a condition called anterior pelvic tilt. Due to tight hip flexors, your hips are pushed forward and your lower back tightens. People who have this have pronounced inward curvature of their lower back and a tummy that sticks out. Such a posture is harmful to the discs in your lower back as well.
How do you counter this risk of too much sitting? Get up and move more throughout the day. When you sit too much in your chair, make sure you’re sitting properly, not slumping or leaning too far forward. At the end of the day and, preferably, during the day as well, do a series of hip flexor stretches to loosen the tight muscles. Also, work on strengthening the muscles that oppose your hip flexors, your glutes and hamstrings.
Stress on the Back and Neck
It’s not just your lower back that takes a beating when you sit too much – your upper back and neck do too. Did you know that when you sit too much, as opposed to standing, it places 90% more stress and strain on your back? That’s partially because most people have a tendency to slump when they sit in a chair. In addition, there’s another postural epidemic sweeping the country – text neck. When you look down at a device you’re holding in your hands, you place considerable pressure on the muscles in your upper back and neck. Do this enough throughout the day and you could end up with back and neck issues.
What can you do to lower your risk of back or neck pain? Sit less by taking frequent standing/walking breaks throughout the day. If you’re holding a phone, hold it higher up, around eye level. Learn how to sit and stand with your body aligned in a neutral position. Also, do upper back and neck stretches throughout the day and at the end of the day. Strengthen the muscles in your neck and back through resistance training.
Higher Risk of Developing a Blood Clot
Yes, sitting too long without taking breaks raises your risk of developing a blood clot in a deep vein in your lower extremity. This is dangerous because the clot can dislodge and move to your lungs where it could be fatal. In fact, a British study showed that women who sit for long periods of time during the day double or triple their risk of developing blood clots. You’re also at higher risk if you take hormonal therapy for menopause or oral contraceptives. Again, the key is to walk around at least every hour. If you can’t, flex and extend your calves regularly to keep the blood flowing and reduce the risk of a clot forming.
Worsening of Varicose Veins
Sitting is hard on your veins in another way. Prolonged sitting can make varicose veins worse and increase your risk of getting them in the first place. Fortunately, varicose veins aren’t as serious as a blood clot – but who wants them? The extra pressure sitting places on your lower body can damage the valves that keep blood from your veins flowing toward your heart rather than pooling in your lower legs. When the valves are damaged, blood pools in your legs and this causes the veins to swell and become more prominent. However, when you contract the muscles in your lower leg or walk around, the muscles push the blood back toward the heart, taking the pressure off the veins. So, take more frequent walks during the day and get in the habit of contracting your calf muscles when you sit too much.
Enzymes Involved in Fat and Glucose Metabolism Are Affected
As if back pain, neck pain, varicose veins, and blood clots aren’t enough, sitting also turns off key enzymes involved in breaking down fats carried in the bloodstream called triglycerides. High triglycerides are linked with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Sitting also reduces insulin sensitivity, making it harder for your cells to take up glucose and remove it from your bloodstream. Therefore, your risk of developing type 2 diabetes goes up. So, sitting too much impacts key hormones involved in the metabolism of fat and glucose – another reason to move more and sit less.
Increased Risk of Mortality from All Causes
Most of disturbing of all are studies showing that sitting too much increases mortality from all causes, especially cardiovascular disease. A study also showed that it’s not just the volume of sitting that you do but how you space your sitting out over a day. Sitting for six hours a day in two or three sessions of 2-3 hours each is less harmful than sitting for six hours in six or seven sessions of an hour at a time. So, more frequent walking breaks are beneficial. The study also suggests that keeping sitting sessions as short as possible, 30 minutes or less, is linked with the lowest risk of early mortality.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why it’s important to do more moving and less sitting. Break your sitting up with periods of activity. Take a brief walk or, at least, stand up and stretch. Less sitting, more movement.
StartStanding.org. “How Sitting Causes Back Pain”
DailyMail.com. “How sitting at a desk for too long could give you a deadly blood clot”
International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity201714:8. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-016-0457-8.
Science Daily. “Long sitting periods may be just as harmful as daily total”
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