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Is Sitting Really So Bad for You?

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Sitting is the new smoking. How many times have you heard that? If you work in an office environment that requires you to chill in a chair for a majority of the day, it's an analogy that can make you feel like you're working yourself to death. Literally.

But sitting doesn't necessarily carry the dire death sentence that many claim it does, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The research looked for a link between sitting and developing diabetes. Over 13 years, the study authors tracked nearly 5,000 workers who were around 44 years old, and who didn't have diabetes or other circulatory problems when the observation began. The result? They couldn't really make a connection. Even though prior studies seemed to correlate the two, researchers of the most recent study believe that contributing factors, like obesity and lack of physical activity, were never previously accounted for. And of course those also play a significant role in whether you'll develop the disease.

The findings don't really surprise Alan Hedge, Ph.D., director of the human factors and ergonomics laboratory at Cornell University, who has never believed the shame swirling around sitting. "Comparing sitting to smoking is not a valid comparison, and in fact, it's a silly comparison—everybody sits," he says. (And we all know smoking is really freaking bad.) And it's not just diabetes. The connection between sitting and other deadly diseases may also be worthy of debunking, as it's absolutely possible to be healthy even if you spend the majority of your day plopped in your swivel chair, Hedge says.

The other thing that doesn't sit well with Hedge is that the commonly touted fix to sitting is just to stand more. "It's possible to stand too much," he says. "And standing is associated with a variety of adverse health effects, including changes to cardiovascular diseases, increases in back complaints, varicose veins and problems with the feet." And your posture takes a hit, too. After standing for more than 10 minutes, you'll start to lean, Hedge adds.

But before you saddle up to your desk and shoot a smug look at your coworker plugging away at his standing desk, this is not a free pass to glue your buns to your chair eight hours a day (deadlines, be damned!). There are a few caveats, the first being that you've got to move your body.

Participants in the study were active—they walked an average of 43 minutes a day, in addition to doing other physical activity. Another review seemed to back up that finding, showing that you can beat the potentially harmful effects of sitting, like cardiovascular problems. But to do that, you need to engage in 60 to 75 minutes of moderately intense physical activity a day. (You were looking for a reason to sign up for that half marathon, right?)

And it's not just exercise-type movement that you need. Hedge recommends that after sitting for 20 minutes, you should stand for eight minutes and then move around for two minutes. At a minimum, you should be getting up every hour.

The other biggie? You need to pay attention to your posture and make sure your body is in an ergonomic position. What does that look like? Hedge recommends: Sitting back in your chair with feet flat on the floor. Hands and wrists should rest on your desk and be lined up in relation to your keyboard and mouse, while making sure to keep your shoulders and arms from tensing up.

Still, not every health care professional is on board with giving your workplace seating habits a pass. "As long as you're sitting, you're sedentary, and sedentary behavior increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, among other things, says Jonathan Dugas, Ph.D., director of health and research at Vitality Group, a wellness program in Chicago. "We stand to benefit greatly from being active, and opting to remain sedentary prevents us from doing so."

So what to do? Sit? Stand? Do yoga in the corner? The research seems to agree on at least one thing: If you're going to sit back and relax (or hello, work), just make sure to get up every so often—and commit to exercising regularly, obvs.

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