How sitting is affecting your health – the facts
On average, office workers sit for 13 hours per day. The sedentary nature of our lives is constantly under fire from health activists, and our office environments are one of the main targets in the fight against a more active lifestyle.
It’s easy to see why. After 10 to 20 years of sitting down for six hours or more per day, you may have cut seven quality years of your life, increased your risk of heart disease by 64% and your overall risk of prostate or breast cancer by 30%.
The effects of periods of sitting down change across different timescales. Immediately after sitting, the electrical activity in your muscles slows down and your calorie-burning rate drops to a third of what it is when you’re walking.
If you sit down for a full day, your insulin’s glucose uptake will drop by 40%, which can eventually lead to type-2 diabetes.
After two weeks of sitting for more than six hours every day, your body produces more fatty molecules, bad cholesterol and builds more resistance to insulin, leading to weigh gain. After one year, you’ll continue to gain weight and your cholesterol will rise. Studies on women suggest you could lose 1% of your bone mass every year.
That’s a scary set of stats and enough to get anyone dashing down to the gym.
However, high-intensity workouts won’t compensate for the damage done by sitting at your desk. According to one study, it’s better to move regularly throughout the day than opt for an hour’s worth of fitness.
This isn’t the first time the world’s workers have been told to move more, and more regularly. In the 1940s, a British doctor called Jeremy Morris noticed bus conductors, who moved up and down the bus to collect fares and issue tickets, had much lower rates of heart disease than bus drivers, who sit down for their working day.
Morris expanded his findings to other types of workers and unleashed a quest that continues today: to understand the harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle and how we can counteract them.
How much exercise do you need?
Due to the sheer breadth of scientific research out there, it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact figure. However, a recent investigation recommends between 60 and 75 minutes of daily activity.
Before you claim that you can’t find the time to exercise, it’s worth mentioning that the average person watches three hours of television a day. Speaking to the Financial Times, the investigation’s lead author, Ulf Ekelund of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo, said: “It might be possible to devote a little of that time to exercise.” Even half the recommended amount of exercise, he noted, is associated with a significant reduction in the risk to your health.
However, 60 to 75 minutes of daily activity is slightly higher compared to other recommendations. For example, the U.K.’s National Health Service recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, every week as well as some type of strength exercise two or more days a week.
A moderate activity includes a brisk walk or cycling and a vigorous activity includes jogging, fast swimming or aerobics. Muscle-strengthening activities include lifting weights, working with resistance bands, yoga or Pilates.
The NHS also advises: “All adults should also break up long periods of sitting with light activity.”
How to keep moving and reverse the effects of sitting
Don’t panic. You don’t need to start an excessive training regime to overcome the effects we’ve just described. You just need to create pockets of moderate activity to give your body a break from sitting.
One study suggests you just need to take a short break every hour when you’re sitting to counteract the effects. Another study showed that people who took five-minute breaks every hour had a smaller waist circumference, fewer fatty molecules and lower blood glucose levels compared to a control population. In another study, the effects of type-2 diabetes were reduced thanks to brief bouts of walking.
When you’re at work you could, for example, set a timer and just walk to the kitchen and pop the kettle on. If you’ve got a pedometer, you can easily keep an eye on your activity too and may want to go for a walk in your lunch hour.
There are plenty of different ways to keep moving around the office. For example, you could get up and speak to your coworker instead of emailing them, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or try a standing desk.
There are a lot of different ways to stay active at work, and this activity produces a lot of benefits, so get a move on!