Is “Sitting the New Cancer”? Is prolonged sitting a real threat or just media hype? Sitting, a sedentary behavior, may seem harmless, but you may be surprised by the negative impact it has on your health. An increased risk of breast and colon cancers, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease are all found associated with prolonged sitting. A recent review of 47 studies backed up that conclusion. “Sitting is the New Cancer” is truly a reality, not just a provocative headline.
Why is This Becoming an Issue? What Has Changed?
Just consider how many hours we spend sitting. It is the confluence of our work life, home life and for some the travel times in between the two. Americans spend nearly eight hours a day at work sitting according to a Harris poll conducted by the America On the Move Foundation. And workplace sitting has risen in recent decades, mainly due to the widespread availability of computers and labor-saving devices.
Prolonged sitting at home has increased as well. U.S. adults spend an average of four hours a day watching TV and playing computer games. To exasperate the problem, the typical American home has multiple remotes for everything from the TV to the garage door. These days you can shop, and even catch up with friends on social media without so much as standing up.
Commute times on average have increased too. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans now spend more than 100 hours a year commuting to work. Throughout our day we may partake in many activities, but often the common denominator is that they seem to require a sitting position.
Physiologically What are the Risks of Sitting too Much?
Prolonged Sitting Lowers Your Circulation and Metabolism
Sitting for extended periods of time means you don’t contract your large skeletal muscles and this lowers the body’s metabolism, thus burning fewer calories. Levels of unhealthy types of fat, such as triglycerides, increase while the high-density lipoproteins (good cholesterol) decrease. They can drop as much as 50% if you sit for a full day. Your risk for heart disease goes up too, because enzymes that keep blood fats in check are inactive. The less active you are, the less blood sugar your body utilizes. For every two hours spent sitting per day, your chance of contracting diabetes goes up by 7-14 percent.
The Cancer Link
People who sit too much and have a sedentary lifestyle have an increased risk of colon and breast cancer. One study showed a 40% decrease in cancer mortality in those who were physically active compared to those who were active.
Prolonged sitting can affect your mental health, increase fatigue, increase stress levels and lower productivity. You’re also more prone to depression. With less blood flow, fewer endorphin hormones circulate to your brain.
Posture and Spine Health
Sitting posture and spine health. When you sit too much, your hip flexors and hamstrings tighten and shorten. The muscles that support your back and neck can become weak and stiff. Prolonged sitting no doubt has contributed to an increase in the incidence of chronic lower-back pain. Read more about the Impact of Chronic Pain in the Workplace.
Sitting Time Can Not be Undone
The conventional wisdom has been if you watch your diet and get aerobic exercise at least a few times a week, you can offset your sitting time. A growing body of research suggests that this advice makes no more sense than the idea that you could counter a smoking habit by running. Exercise alone is not a perfect antidote for sitting. That’s one big reason so many still struggle with weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol woes despite keeping consistent workout routines.
What Can Companies Do To Reverse This Trend?
Some great news is that companies realize that by providing programs that promote Total Workers Health they can improve employee wellness and morale, reduce medical plan costs, increase productivity, and reduce the frequency and severity of workers’ compensation claims. Many organizations integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with the promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker well-being. And companies are combating the harmful effects of prolonged sitting and other health issues by offering: stretching programs, training on body mechanics and self-care, on-site pain management and mitigation programs, posture analysis, and education, and ergonomic training. Some companies pay for gym membership while others provide a fitness center on-site. Additionally, organizations are promoting a culture of health awareness, incentives for health improvements, and providing resources to employees to address individual issues. For more detail on integrated health programs see our “Total Worker Health” white paper.
So What Can You Do to Reverse the Negative Effects?
More good news! There are a lot of small things that you can do to avoid the negative health effects of sitting.
Add Movement to Your Day
At work, some simple ways to increase your movement can include stretching often, taking breaks, walking up and down stairs instead of the elevator, walk around while talking on the phone, have walk and talk meetings, get a walking partner, walk or ride your bike to work, and/or park farther from the door. Try to stand when you’re reading e-mail and taking phone calls. Consider trading your chair for a large stability ball which engages more muscles or make sure your chair and environment are ergonomic to your body type and movements.
At home, walk the dog (if you have one), garden, do housework: wash windows, vacuum, garden, fold laundry. Dance to your favorite tune. Try changing traditional video games into activity promoting games. Limit your TV time (or exercise during the ads). Avoid sitting whenever possible. During your commute, you can stretch and do isometric exercises, provided you can keep your eyes on the road.
Increase Your Exercise
Did you know that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends everyone should exercise at a moderate-intensity cardio activity on 3-5 days for a minimum of 150 minutes each week or vigorous-intensity cardio activity on 3-7 days for a minimum of 75 minutes each week to counter the dangers of sitting? And they recommend this should be done in combination with 8-10 strength-training exercises, 8-12 repetitions of each exercise twice each week. So even though exercise alone does not compensate for the damage of prolonged sitting, it provides undeniable benefits that are still part of the solution.
If you must, you must. When sitting, sit with good posture – a back straight, feet on the floor, head looking straight ahead, muscles in a neutral position. No slouching allowed. Experiment with moving your computer work surface higher so you can do more of your work in a standing position.
Take Regular Breaks
The consensus is by simply taking breaks throughout the day you can reverse many of the harmful effects of sitting and improve overall health. However, there are many opinions as to how often and the duration. Mayo Clinic suggests taking short breaks every 15 minutes, while others suggest at least hourly for up to 10 minutes. During breaks it is best to stretch, move around, and get some fresh air. You get the picture – breaks are a must.
In summary, it is clear that prolonged sitting is, in fact, a real threat to your health, increasing the risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain breast and colon cancers. Armed with knowledge and making a few positive changes to your lifestyle can safeguard a lifetime of good health.