The danger of sitting too much, and what you can do about it
January 8, 2014
It's not just firefighters, loggers and oil rig workers who experience dangers on the job. Studies now show that simply sitting at a desk for long periods of time has a surprising number of health risks.
According to the Mayo Clinic, researchers have found that prolonged sitting can lead to a variety of physical problems, including obesity and "metabolic syndrome," which is "a cluster of conditions that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels."
Spending too much time in your chair can also increase a person's risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, weight gain, carpal tunnel syndrome, misaligned hips, varicose veins and more, studies show.
Fat accumulated from inactivity can wrap around the organs and is particularly damaging — and has been linked to diseases such as diabetes, stroke and osteoporosis. Apparently, sitting for too long is worse than exercising too little, researchers surmise.
Grass Valley physical therapist John Seivert, who has spend 30 years helping patients with the management of spinal dysfunctions and orthopedic problems of the extremities, said in recent years he has seen fewer office-related problems having to do with the upper extremities. Computer shortcuts and the introduction of ergonomic computer equipment have helped cut down repetitive motion injuries, he said. But he continues to see patients who complain of back and neck pain, often due to poor posture.
"Sitting — with the head forward and rounded shoulders leads to tight muscles in the front of the chest," he said. "Some slump, while others sit so rigid they have no natural curve in the spine, which puts pressure on spinal joints. It's important to strengthen those muscles. Past the age of 30, we lose 1 to 3 percent of muscle mass per year if we're not doing anything."
The staff at Seivert's office at Body Logic Physical Therapy alternates between standing, sitting and balancing on gym balls, he said. The key is not to do too much of any one thing. According to ergonomics researchers at Cornell University, too much standing also has its drawbacks, as prolonged time on your feet puts greater strain on the feet, legs and circulatory system.
"The older we get, the more we have to exercise," Seivert added. "We have to battle the inevitable changes that age brings."
Mayo Clinic research has also shown that several hours per week at the gym or other spurts of "vigorous activity" don't seem to help in any significant way for those who sit for 8 to 10 hours a day.
Instead, the answer appears to be simply less sitting and more overall moving.
Examples from the Mayo Clinic include:
— Standing while talking on the phone or eating lunch. If you work at a desk for long periods of time, try a standing desk — or improvise with a high table or counter.
— Think about ways to walk while you work; for example, walk with your colleagues rather than gathering in a conference room.
— Position your work surface above a treadmill — with a computer screen and keyboard on a stand or a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk — so that you can be in motion throughout the day.
Studies show that even slow, leisurely and varied movement can profoundly impact one's health, as the muscles used for standing and other movement seems to "trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body." Prolonged sitting causes these processes to stall.
While low-level activities like standing in line, household chores or strolling to work may seem to burn little calories, over the course of a day they add up, according to research by Marc Hamilton, a professor of inactivity physiology at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. Apparently, regular low-level muscle contractions are good for one's health.
Researchers at Cornell found that workers who designed sit-stand work-stations tended to stand for very short periods, as little as 15 minutes a day. One study showed that after one month, most people go back to sitting all the time. Treadmill and bicycle work stations have shown to "decrease computer work performance (typing and mousing slows down, and significantly more mistakes are made)."
The key is to make frequent movement a part of every work day, insist researchers. One should stand every 20 minutes and take a posture break and move — not stand — in order to get blood circulating through the muscles. For example, suggestions include walking to a printer, standing for a meeting, taking the stairs and parking farther away.
"It doesn't matter what you do — just move," said Seivert. "Look at your genetics. If mom looks like a question mark, you're headed that way unless you strategize. We all know what we have to do — but many of us just haven't done it."
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.
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