Whether it’s spending hours at a desk, riding the bus, or being plonked in front of the TV after a full day’s work, modern life involves a lot of time on your butt. And it’s taking a toll.
Medical doctor, television personality and author Dr Linda Friedland says sitting is the most underrated health threat of our time. “It has been unmasked as
a major risk factor for early death and chronic disease,” she says. “Some have called sitting ‘the new smoking’.”
Studies are showing that obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers are associated with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. In 2014, Curtin University researchers found that excessive sitting increased the rate of premature death by 5.9 per cent.
“Recent evidence suggests the health consequences of too much sitting are of
a similar magnitude to obesity, tobacco and alcohol use,” says Leon Straker, professor of physiotherapy at Curtin University. “The recently updated Australian Government guidelines recommend minimising the time spent in prolonged sitting because the evidence for the harm associated with excessive sitting is now widely understood.
“Globally, about two per cent of deaths are related to traditional work-related risks like falls and pollutants, but about six per cent are related to too much sitting. This is through the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.”
So, can regular exercise counteract the damage? “What is very concerning to learn from the research in this area is that even people who are physically active can get significant detrimental effects from prolonged sitting,” says Star Physio principal physiotherapist Damian Oldmeadow. “One thing that’s important to understand is that there’s a difference between inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle. Inactivity refers to a lack of physical exercise, whereas sedentary is more about the amount of time you sit down.”
He says that just one day of sitting can be enough to dramatically affect the body’s ability to respond to insulin, which can lead to its overproduction and, potentially, to diabetes. “Sitting for more than eight hours a day has been associated with a 90 per cent increased risk of type two diabetes,” he says. “Excess sitting can also increase your risk of colon, breast, and endometrial cancers, which could be due to excess insulin production, which encourages cell growth.”
Then there’s the heart.
“When you sit, blood flows slower, with muscles burning less fat, making it easier for fatty acids to clog your heart,” says Damian. “Therefore there is a significantly greater risk of developing heart disease.”
Subiaco Sports Massage Clinic principal soft-tissue therapist Bernd Adolph says too much sitting can trigger musculoskeletal problems, causing a permanent imbalance between the posterior lower back muscles and anterior core.
“From your neck down to your shoulders, the forward position of sitting causes narrowed shoulder joints,” he says. “Long-term inactivity in the core muscles creates weaknesses that show up in your posture, whereas these muscles activate when you stand.”
Damian says an estimated 40 per cent of people with back pain have spent long hours at their computer each day. “It’s also common to hold your neck
and head forward while working at a computer, which leads to strains in
your cervical spine as well as muscle imbalances leading to neck strain, sore shoulders and back.”
He says bone weakness, osteoporosis and hip problems are also common.
“Prolonged sitting results in limited range of motion, with hips becoming
tight due to rare extention. Decreased hip mobility is the leading cause of falls
in the elderly.”
Damian says the health risks of sitting aren’t just for adults.
“We are very concerned at some of the things we see in some of the children coming through the clinic. A combination of our sedentary and computer-driven lifestyles, with children being wrapped in cotton wool due to perceived risks, has led to children lacking basic motor skills, muscle strength and coordination.” Damian and his team are currently working on a pilot study to test children
at school for potential risks.
Bernd echoes these views. “I’m seeing these problems presenting at an earlier age,” he says. “Increasingly even young children are presenting with neck and shoulder pain caused by static sitting and stooping over iPads.”
Act-Belong-Commit campaign manager Amberlee Laws says a sedentary lifestyle can also increase the risk of mental health problems, by limiting the release of mood-enhancing chemicals.
“There is substantial evidence from a variety of sources that individuals with higher levels of physical, mental, spiritual and social activity have higher levels of wellbeing and mental health,” she says. “For example, the mental health benefits of physical activity are well known for improving quality of life and mood, while reducing depression and anxiety.
“Even a small amount of physical activity can reduce anxiety, depression and improve overall wellbeing.”
So we’re potentially missing out on nature’s very own happy pill – endorphins. What else are we missing out on?
Amberlee says lack of Vitamin D has also been linked to an increased risk of mental health problems. “The sun provides a vital source of vitamin D to keep bones and muscles strong and healthy. Contact with nature helps us recover from stress and mental fatigue, helps us relax and puts us in a good frame of mind.”
TAKE A STAND
Dr Linda Friedland gives her top five tips for cutting down the time on your butt.
1. Change your workspace configuration
Although an increasingly popular approach is to switch to a standing desk, it’s quite a radical change for most people. Even more dramatic – and much more expensive – are treadmill desks (which may become more accessible and affordable in the near future). In the meantime, utilising an exercise ball for part of the day is an effective way to use more leg and core muscles, and burn off extra calories.
2. Interrupt your day
Break up prolonged sitting times with short bursts of activity. Use the stairs every time you need to go to a meeting, and on entering or leaving the office. Take a brisk walk during your lunch break, or at least eat lunch away from your desk. Walking increases your blood circulation, your metabolic rate and your fat burning by more than a hundred per cent – and taking the stairs by at least two hundred per cent. Break up your day into 30-minute blocks of sitting, and set an alarm to remind you to get up.
3.Take frequent stretch breaks
Get up from your desk and stretch your muscles every 30 to 60 minutes. This provides an opportunity to take a breath and push your ‘pause’ button for a few moments. Moreover it is a highly effective way to stimulate your muscle and nerve function. This increases the flow of blood throughout your body and brain, thus clearing waste products, glucose and fat from your bloodstream.
4. Stand more often
You can go through your emails, and complete routine tasks while standing.
A campaign to encourage Australians to sit less was launched earier this year: Get Australia Standing, the brainchild of Gavin Bradley, is based on the successful UK program, and its key target for change is the workplace. “It’s not all about having funky equipment,” explains Bradley. “A lot of it is about culture within an organisation. That it’s ok to stand when on the phone or to have a standing area where people can use their laptops away from their sitting desk.” Standing increases your energy levels, but simply swapping sitting for standing is not the only answer, as static standing has its own problems such as exacerbating back pain.
5. Try walk-and-talk meetings
It may sound strange but the ‘walking meeting’ is growing in popularity. It is obviously not recommended for formal meetings or with new clients, but there is
no reason why you cannot try this out for less formal interactions. Schedule a ‘walk and talk’ session to explore an idea with a colleague instead of conversing via phone, email, or in a cubicle.