The science of sitting and how a simple movement can change everything

Are you one of those humans who work out regularly to counterbalance your sitting job? Unfortunately this isn’t enough. And if you have already resigned yourself to accepting a sedentary/sitting lifestyle, I hope this is a chance for you to think again.

The downsides of prolonged sitting are significant and could cost you years of precious lifetime. In this third article in my series on health, I share an easy hack you can apply to improve your wellbeing and hopefully gain a few years in the process!

***

Are you sitting right now? How's your posture? Are you sitting in a relaxed, yet upright position with your spine straight or are you slouching? And the most important question, for how long have you been sitting? If it's more than 20 minutes it's probably a good idea to get up on your feet right now. Not for long, just stand up for a minute or so and then you can keep reading. Try it.

We've evolved into a sitting society. Even as children, inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle are ubiquitous. Many of us spend long hours each day in sitting positions with little or no physical activity. We sit whilst commuting, working in an office, eating and during many of our leisure activities such as reading, watching TV, socialising or playing video games.

Some of you might say "granted, I do sit a lot, but I do sports a few times a week. I'm going to the gym or doing other physical exercises regularly that keep me fit. Isn't that enough to compensate for the sitting?" If this description fits you, Katy Bowman, author of Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement, would call your lifestyle "actively sedentary".

This category includes people who are active for one hour but sitting around the rest of the day. Her view is that you can't offset 10 hours of stillness with one hour of exercise. The analogy she draws between movement and nutrition is insightful; everyday movement is like your basic food intake, exercise is like taking a supplement. Sport and exercise can only partly compensate for a sitting lifestyle. It is movement throughout the day that is more important than doing an exercise session once in a while.

Why is sitting so bad for us?

Sitting has detrimental effects on the cardiovascular system as well as on metabolism. It also restricts blood flow through your lower extremities. After 1 hour of sitting the blood flow through the main arteries in the legs is reduced by as much as 50%. Inactivity reduces and eliminates little muscle movements with negative consequences on sugar and fat-metabolism.

The inactivity leads to an increased insulin-resistance of muscle cells and a reduction of enzymes needed for fat metabolism and to clear out dangerous triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood that at higher levels is associated with liver and pancreas problems). Sitting has shown to decrease "good" HDL cholesterol and increase "bad" LDL cholesterol. As a consequence, sitting increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular events and obesity.

There is plenty of research into the detrimental effects of sitting. A paper in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2014 revealed that prolonged sitting significantly increases your risk for colon and other forms of cancer.

The American Journal of Epidemiology published a paper in 2010 summarising a study that looked at the correlation of leisure time spent sitting and total mortality in a cohort of US adults. They found adults sitting for more than six hours died significantly earlier than their counterparts who sat three hours or less a day. This is the result of reduced blood flow and less neurotransmitters getting circulated, plus it’s harder for serotonin, our "feel-good" activator, to make its way to the necessary receptors.

A study that compared sitting time, physical activity and depressive symptoms in mid-aged women found, that the risk of developing depression rises by nearly 50% with longer sitting periods.

In a meta-study carried out by the University of Regensburg, Germany, researchers came to the conclusion that our lifespan significantly shortens with an increase in sitting time. Their findings were severe; statistically for every hour sitting life expectancy decreases by a shocking two hours.

It is no wonder that the World Health Organisation estimates a sedentary lifestyle to be the fourth leading cause of premature death.

The good news

For all of us who are sitting a lot, this is depressing news, isn't it? You might be scanning your options and feeling a bit trapped, thinking that you can't really change your job to regain those lifetime hours lost through sitting.

Here's the good news - there is something you can do about it.

Research carried out by NASA revealed that it’s not the number of hours you spend a day in a sitting position but rather the uninterrupted time spent sitting that impacts you. They found that the key to counter the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle (be it sitting, lying in bed or standing still long periods of time) is to alternate the gravity load on the body by changing posture, i.e. standing up from a sitting position or sitting or standing up from a lying position.

While getting up requires minimal effort, it triggers a series of positive changes. It stimulates the organ of equilibrium (in the inner ear), which triggers the redistribution of the blood-flow in the body by activating blood-pressure-sensors in the heart and neck and consecutively raising blood pressure to ensure sufficient blood flow to the brain. This adaptation happens quickly and when listening to your body, you will sense it happening.

What you can do about it

After sitting for around 20 minutes simply get up for a bit. 15 to 30 seconds should be enough, but it would be better to stay in this changed position for a minute or so. When you sit down again, be conscious and get into a good sitting posture. It’s that simple.

I personally use simple apps for interval training on my desktop or smartphone to remind me to stand up (Elite Interval Training for Windows or Interval Timer - HIIT Workout for iOS and Android). I define a workout consisting of just one exercise - "Sitting" with a duration of 18.5 minutes and a resting time of 1.5 minutes. I set the whole workout for the maximum number of rounds/repetitions (30 rounds would be 10 hours) to continuously remind me to get my 1.5 minute breaks throughout the day.

When I get up for the 1.5 minutes, I do little exercises that I constantly change, depending on how I feel, the environment I'm in and what comes to mind. You may wish to try:

  • exercises to loosen up e.g. shaking exercises

  • walking around the room or walking/running in a stationary position

  • stretching your body in different postures e.g. yoga poses

  • squats

  • performing virtual movements, both slow and quick e.g. throwing a virtual ball or spear, skipping rope jumps etc

  • simple exercises e.g. breathing, palming your eyes (Bates Method) or Chunyi Lin's Spring Forest Qi Gong on tapping your tailbone. (While standing, lean your neck and head forward a bit so there is a slight curve to your spine. With cupped hands or loose fists, tap the tailbone and sacrum area. This exercise strengthens the kidney energy. Energy blockages in this area often come with sitting and can go all the way up to the top of the spine and the head.)

  • or simply get yourself a glass of water or make a cup of tea

If you happen to be in a situation where you can't get up e.g. on a crowded flight in a window seat or in a meeting, you can contract your muscles in waves, starting from you neck, shoulders, arms, through to your abdomen, thighs and calves down to your feet. Feel the muscles, hold the tension for a few seconds then relax them. Do a few rounds of building up muscle tension and relaxation. Animals do this many times a day. Think of a cat stretching. She will tense her muscles while stretching, and repeat this up to forty times a day.

The key is to move as many different muscle groups during the day as you can. Moving more muscles has greater benefits than exercising single muscle-groups in a gym workout. When stretching, reach out to your furthest possible range of motion. This counteracts the shortening of muscles that occur when sitting, especially if you’re prone to slouching.

When you are bedridden or in a lying position, try to sit-up every half hour for a minute or so and if you can, stand-up. Just doing these positional changes without further engaging in exercises, has been shown to have tremendous benefits for your health. (If you want to read more, I recommend Designed to Move by former NASA researcher Joan Vernikos, Ph.D.)

Those short pauses of 1 to 1.5 minutes every 20 minutes do add up. If you follow this regime for 8 hours a day you're doing more than half an hour of active exercises a day and more than three hours a week.

With those short breaks and simple exercises, I guarantee you will have more energy throughout the day and will feel the difference in your performance and wellbeing.

We’d love to hear how this works for you. If this was useful, let us know by liking this post and sharing it with friends, family and colleagues. If they spend a lot of time sitting, we hope it will benefit them too.