Sitting down for long periods is as bad for people as smoking is

ARE you sitting down to read this? If so, then start fidgeting, moving your feet, your shoulders, your ankles. Better still, stand up. 

Walk to the coffee machine, or touch your toes, do anything, but stay seated. 

For sitting, a habit that occupies more of our time than any other, is literally killing us.

According to US movement specialist, Dr Kelly Starrett, the best-selling author of a new book called Deskbound, our sedentarism is responsible for rises in obesity and disease, for a fall in brain health and mobility and, ultimately for lives being cut short. 

Sitting down for long periods is as bad for people as smoking is

Dr Starrett is called upon by leading sports stars and Hollywood A-listers, who are concerned about the hours they spend sitting down, despite their otherwise busy lifestyles.

However, they are not the only ones who should stand up and take note.

According to the Healthy Ireland survey published last year, less than one-third of the population meets even the minimal physical activity recommendations, largely because of an “increase in sedentary behaviour at home and at work”.

Statistics from Get Ireland Active reveal that the nation’s men sit for an average of 5.5 hours each day at the office, while women sit on average for 5.2 hours a day while working. 

Sitting down for long periods is as bad for people as smoking is

Add to that time spent in the car, on the sofa and in bed and it’s no surprise that our sitting or lying time is having a devastating impact on health.

Last year, a Queens University team that is part of a European consortium, which has received a €4.5m European Commission grant to help develop innovative ways to tackle sedentary behaviour and increase physical activity in older people, warned that a sedentary lifestyle is as bad for people as smoking. 

“Public health scientists have recognised the need to develop effective interventions to address the high levels of inactivity across ages, with sitting regarded as ‘the new smoking’,” says Dr Mark Tully, head of the Queens project.

Previous work by Dr Tully and his team has shown that mothers who sit more during pregnancy are likely to have heavier babies, while men who spend more time sitting at work have poorer kidney function.

The risks don’t end there: A Canadian study showed that adults who spent most of their time sitting were 50% more likely to die during the follow-up study than those who sit the least, while researchers from Loughborough University produced shocking findings of how sitting for more than six hours a day is now one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease, stroke and diabetes in the Western World.

Sitting down for long periods is as bad for people as smoking is

“We are getting more food delivered to save cooking, films are sent electronically and many people have even stopped travelling to offices, because they work at home,” says Dale Esliger, of Loughborough’s centre for sports and exercise medicine, who was co-author of the study. 

He predicts it will get worse.

Dr Starrett rattles off similar studies with alarming effect. 

Prolonged sitting, he says, has been linked to a reduction in the enzymes that help to metabolise fat and sugar in the body and also to the risk of high blood pressure.

German researchers have shown that the risk of some forms of cancer — including bowel and lung — rise with every additional two hours you spend in a chair. 

“Sitting for hours a day affects our breathing, our digestion and every aspect of our health,” warns Dr Starrett. 

“It challenges the innate physical and metabolic functions of the human body.”

Dr Tully says that many people spend most of the day sitting down. 

Sitting down for long periods is as bad for people as smoking is

“On average, people spend over nine hours, or up to 80%, of their waking day sitting down,” he says.

Even those of us who diligently attend the gym might not be spending enough time on two feet. 

As commendable as a daily workout might be, studies have shown that the benefits of exercise are blunted if you spend the rest of the day on your bottom.

Last year, scientists at the University of Toronto showed that dedicated gym-goers were at higher risk of heart disease, cancer, and early death if they also sat in a chair for several hours a day. 

You can be a runner or yoga expert and still qualify as a couch potato. 

“It’s not enough to sit behind a desk for six hours and then go to the gym,” says Dr Starrett. 

“We need to reduce the hours we spend sitting, overall, to two or less per day. Everything improves when you move more and we can all turn that corner.”

What, then, is the answer? 

Sitting down for long periods is as bad for people as smoking is

Last year, a statement in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) suggested the workplace provides the perfect environment for many to begin offsetting their sedentary lifestlyes. 

An international group of experts who had considered the scientific evidence about the adverse effects of prolonged sitting published recommendations in the BJSM for employers to encourage employees to aim for two hours of standing or light activity during the workday, eventually working up to four hours a day.

To achieve this, “seated-based work should be regularly broken up with standing-based work, the use of sit-stand desks or the taking of short active standing breaks,” the BJSM suggested.

Dr Tully regularly uses a treadmill desk during his working day.

“There are a number of options available to help people be more active at work, including height adjustable desks, which allow users to alternate between standing and sitting, and treadmills,” says the Queens University scientist who is collaborating with researchers in Spain, Denmark, Germany, France, and Scotland to increase physical activity in older people.

“Those of us who stand while we work are more creative and productive in our working lives too. So it may well be that sitting is reducing productivity in our workplaces,” says Tully.

Dr Starrett says there are other simple measures to prevent prolonged sitting. 

“We need to train ourselves to move more again,” he says. 

Sitting down for long periods is as bad for people as smoking is

"We need to fidget and stretch, twist and turn, walk and bend our bodies.”

It’s not about running marathons or hiking up hills, but improving the way our bodies function simply by engaging them in movements.

“Hope is not lost and what’s so great about the solution is that it is achievable and it’s free,” says Starrett. 

“You don’t need to change your chair or invest money in expensive equipment designed to aid your posture. You just need to re-educate yourself in the skill of standing up. 

"There are enormous opportunities to move in a variety of ways once you are on your own two feet again.”


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