The Downside of Sitting


If you’re reading this story sitting down, here’s a suggestion: Get up and move, even if it means just going to the kitchen to grab some water.

The value of getting off of one’s arse—not to run, climb Mount Everest or play a rigorous game of racquetball, but simply to put limbs in motion—is not a new concept. But a growing body of research links prolonged sitting with such potentially life-threatening issues as obesity, heart disease and blood clots, suggesting we all need to, ahem, stand up and take notice.

It’s an equal-opportunity dictum, as applicable to couch potatoes as to fitness fanatics. According to a 2012 University of Leicester study, sitting for long periods doubles the risk of diabetes, heart disease and death—even for those who engage in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

The bottom line? Get off your bottom.

Here are seven tips offered by local experts.


Whether you’re sitting at a computer all day or planted on the couch watching TV, the advice is the same: Two or three times an hour, change that pose. “Interrupt yourself,” says Debbie Coughlin, a physical therapist and ergonomics coordinator for Dignity Health in Citrus Heights. “We always say, as physical therapists, ‘The next posture is the best posture.’” Ideally, says Coughlin, this means getting up and moving. Stroll down the hall; visit a co-worker; go play with your pet. But if you’re stuck at your desk, driving a car or otherwise confined, there are plenty of other things you can do. Roll your shoulders; uncross your legs; stretch a little. “Movement, in whatever fashion, is the idea,” says Coughlin. Check your body for signs of discomfort. Is your arm in the right position? Is your neck hurting? Also important: the pre-emptive strike. Says Coughlin, “We need to interrupt ourselves before we hurt instead of waiting until we hurt, which is what most of us do.”

The simple act of walking is an excellent way to sit less and improve your overall health, says John Chuck, M.D., a primary care physician at Kaiser Permanente in Davis. “Prolonged sitting at work is part of a much bigger problem— sedentariness— that can lead to a host of medical problems, such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression and cancer,” he says. If that doesn’t scare you, perhaps this will: Those in sedentary jobs have about a 20 percent higher risk of forming a pulmonary embolism (blood clot) than do those whose jobs involve more physical activity, according to Chuck. “If you don’t move your feet and legs on a regular basis,” he warns, “you’re more prone to blood clots in the leg.” A huge advocate of walking—you can even catch him leading walks as part of Kaiser’s Walk to Thrive program—Chuck encourages everyone to make physical activity a healthy habit. “Even if you start out walking just five minutes a day, it’s a step in the right direction,” he says. “Small, successful steps lead to great health outcomes.”

In addition to the aforementioned health issues associated with sitting, here’s another: It can hurt your back. “Certain positions of the body increase pressure within the spinal discs,” says Gary Schneiderman, M.D., a spine surgeon and the regional medical director of the Sutter Neuroscience Institute in Sacramento. If you think of the disc as a balloon between two hard surfaces, he explains, it goes to follow that the more pressure you put on those surfaces, the more the balloon deforms. The upshot is that sitting—more than other positions, such as standing or lying down— creates the most disc pressure of all. Add bending and lifting to the mix, and it’s a recipe for disaster. “If you sit in a chair, bend forward and pick up a 10-pound briefcase, it’s the greatest amount of pressure you can create,” says Schneiderman. The takeaways? Get up and move more often—and when you’re sitting, sit properly. “Sitting in the wrong position can aggravate your back, cause pain and affect performance,” says Schneiderman. Keep your back straight, knees level with your hips, feet on the floor—and don’t slump. “Slumping forward while sitting significantly increases the load in the disc, by some 30 to 40 percent,” he says. It’s just like we heard growing up: Sit up straight.

Ergonomics is a big deal these days, and having the right chair is a good place to start. First, consider size: According to the University of Connecticut Health Center, most furniture is designed to accommodate about 95 percent of the population, meaning 5 in 100 are too large or small for standard-size chairs. It should be adjustable, provide lumbar support that follows the curve of your back, and—importantly—should have arms. “If you’re having back problems,” says Schneiderman, “get a chair with arms.” If you work from home and are foothealth ing the cost, don’t despair; a good chair doesn’t have to be pricey, says Kaiser’s Chuck. “The difference between a $100 chair and one that costs ten times more is probably not all that great,” he says. “You can get a really good, supportive chair at that price point ($100).” Yet even the best chair won’t serve you well if you aren’t using it properly. Experts say it’s not the nature of the chair, but the nature of the sitting, that matters most.

From exercise balls to walking workstations, there are a myriad of creative alternatives to sitting on your bum. While exercise balls get mixed reviews—Coughlin says they’re great for strengthening and toning but can be a safety hazard “because they’re an unstable surface, rolling all around”—the walking workstation, or treadmill desk, is a trend fast gaining ground. How does it work? In a nutshell, the walking workstation integrates a treadmill and a desk to keep you moving while you work. Typically, the maximum speed is about two miles per hour, allowing for a slow caloric burn and potential weight loss. But more importantly, it provides a substantial break from sitting. In a Mayo Clinic study of 15 obese individuals using a walking workstation, the results were uniformly encouraging: They burned 119 more calories per hour than while sitting; there were no injuries, falls or unsteadiness; and—amazingly—it only took about two to three minutes for them to get the hang of using their computers while walking. Indeed, the benefits of such workstations are so clear-cut that a growing number of health care organizations, which locally includes Blue Shield of California and Sutter Health, are now incorporating them as part of their employee wellness programs and ergonomic initiatives. “I’ve probably lost 10 pounds since I started using the walkstation a little over two years ago,” says Lynn Weissbart, 54, an electronic data interchange analyst at Blue Shield’s El Dorado Hills office. Hip pain, high blood pressure and a desire to be more active were all driving forces in Weissbart’s decision to try the shared walkstation, which she estimates she uses at least five times a week in hour-long increments. In addition to the physical benefits, Weissbart says the walkstation helps her to focus on work and reduces stress. “The cadence of walking steadily at 2 miles per hour is very relaxing,” she says. “You develop a real rhythm, so it’s easier to concentrate.”

Take a good look at the specifics of your job, determine your risk factors, and do something about it, suggests Coughlin. “Recognizing the risk factors that can contribute to an injury, such as repetitive motion and awkward postures, is key,” she says. Schneiderman notes that one of the most vulnerable groups for sitting-related back pain are heavy-equipment operators and truck drivers, who confront the triple threat of vibration, awkward positioning and long periods of sitting. Equipment design is an important means of combating the issue, Schneiderman says. A suspension seat can help to mitigate vibration; an adjustable seat can help to reduce awkward positioning. Beyond that, the advice is the same for anyone who sits too long: Take regular breaks.

Here’s a clever way to make sure you remember to take those breaks: Use your computer. “Set up ‘stretch break reminders’ on your computer every 30 minutes or so,” suggests Kaiser’s Chuck. “It’s just a simple way to remind yourself to get up off your seat and move a bit.”