I’m sure you will have heard about the health risks of sitting? But why is it bad? What are the consequences of too much sitting?
To us, it really boils down to two things
- The effect on your general health
- The effect on your posture and movement
Let’s take a closer look.
The health risks of sitting: physiology
Most of the studies refer to sedentary behaviour rather than sitting. That means anything you do that involves moving very little. Driving a racing car does not count as sedentary behaviour, even though you are sitting. In contrast, sitting watching TV or at a desk does count as you are expending very little energy. If we refer to sitting below, we mean inactive sitting.
So, what do the studies show?
Well, first of all, they all show that sitting is associated with higher incidences of disease or poor health markers. That is especially so of those that are cardio-metabolic in nature – heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, hyperlipidemia. But pretty much all diseases are implicated, even cancer. In fact, it has been shown that there is a dose-response relationship between sitting time and all-cause mortality! In other words, the more you sit, the more likely you are to die!
Other studies on sitting
Here are some other interesting studies
- There is an association between TV viewing time and various conditions – high blood glucose, waist circumference, high blood pressure and cardio-metabolic risk scores. But what is interesting is that the risks are not negated by the recommended 150 minutes per week of exercise. That means it’s not sufficient to be an ‘active couch potato’. You can’t get away with doing a bit of exercise and then sitting on your bum for the rest of the day.
- It’s not sitting that’s the problem, it’s the lack of moderate to vigorous activity that is responsible for poor blood sugar control.
- 60-75 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity will eliminate the risk of death associated with sitting time. It reduces but does not eliminate the increased risk associated with TV viewing time.
- For the same energy output, spending more time moving is better than doing 1 hour of exercise and then spending the rest of the day not moving. In other words, being an active couch potato, as suggested in the first point, does not cut it!
So, what’s our advice when it comes to reducing the risk of poor health?
- Spend more time standing and moving. If you sit for work, get up frequently, take breaks and move.
- Get fit – try and get at least 60 minutes of exercise every day.
- Limit your TV time or watch TV while you’re doing something more active.
The health risks of sitting: posture and movement
The impact of sitting on posture
So, why all the hoo-ha about posture and sitting?
Well, when you stand naturally, your spine acts as a supporting rod by stacking all the vertebrae in a specific structure. Your spine is supported by the core muscles of your body. The main muscles are the glutes, hip flexors, abdominals and spinal erectors.
But, when you sit for prolonged periods, several physical changes occur.
- The glutes switch off
- Your core muscles become less active.
- A lot of weight is redistributed into your lower back, where it normally should not be placed.
- Your hip flexors will shorten and tighten due to inactivity.
- You supporting muscles such as the glutes and abs will lose tone and atrophy due to inactivity.
The longer and more frequently you sit, the more of a negative effect this will have on your natural posture. This effect will be seen not only in your muscular activation but also your spinal alignment.
Poor posture and health
There are several health issues that also come with having poor posture. Due to the new ‘malformation’ of the support structure, a different set of muscles will get involved in supporting and bearing much of your body’s weight. In addition to this, a misaligned skeletal and muscular system can cause a number of other issues. Here’s a summary:
Exaggerated spinal curvatures and misalignment
Your spine is naturally curved but, when it’s compressed, or when the forces of tight joints act on it, these curves become more pronounced. That’s a problem because good posture and good joint movements rely on a properly curved spine. An example is the shoulder blades. When the spine is curved they tend to get pulled away from their correct alignment. This then affects the shoulder joint and all upper arm movements.
You will be more susceptible to injury because your muscles may be performing a role they are not designed for. Or maybe they are being asked to move in an orientation they are not used to.
As your joints become misaligned, so the bones gradually creep closer together. Nerves can become pinched between bones as they move. A common example is shoulder impingement. This can manifest in referred pain down the arm, numbness or weakness further down the chain.
A consequence of misalignment and a new role for some muscles is back, neck and shoulder pain. Ultimately, poor posture can start to speed up the wear and tear on joints and lead to osteoarthritis.
When you’re standing and moving, your muscles are firing and requiring the delivery of nutrient rich blood via your circulation. By sitting, and under-using your muscles, you are failing to train your circulation. You may develop poor circulation and increase the risk of varicose veins.
A common postural issue associated with sitting is upper back kyphosis (curvature). When your upper back is hunched like that, you will be compressing your rib cage and reducing the ability of your lungs to expand and take in oxygen. This will have knock on effects. You may be short of breath. The oxygenation of all your body’s tissues will be affected. This could affect how well your brain works! And it will affect your recovery from exercise or from trauma.
In the same way your rib cage is compressed when sitting, so too is your digestive tract. Your intestines are all squidged up, supported above your seat. When you stand you allow gravity to exert more influence and keep things moving. You also have the muscles of the trunk firing to exert some pressure and help things along.
Poor posture, particularly a stooped standing stance, can make you look older. A straight spine and elevated chest can make you look youthful. There’s an expectation of how old people will hold themselves. If you maintain good posture into old age then you’ll look younger.
People who are brimming with confidence tend to hold their chests high. People low on confidence tend to curl up and close their chests. The cause and effect work the other way too. If you have poor posture this may affect your confidence. If you have good posture you will feel better about yourself.
Good sitting posture vs bad
Do you spend the majority of your work day sitting? If you’re an office worker, receptionist or taxi driver, for example, then you probably do. Making sure you sit with good posture will help eliminate some of the health risks associated with bad posture. There are some basic tips on how to sit with good posture.
- Ensure your feet are flat on the floor or, where possible, on a foot rest. Try to avoid sitting with crossed ankles or knees.
- Make sure your knees are at hip height. This means having the right chair height for your structure.
- Place your feet just slightly in front of your knee position as you sit.
- Keep your shoulders in a relaxed position. Ideally, they should be slightly pinched back and down, keeping your chest forward.
- Sit up straight with a neutral spine. Avoid ‘slouching’ in your chair or excessively leaning forward on your desk.
- If you work at a desk, try to invest in a standing desk so you don’t have to sit.
- If that is not an option, get hold of an exercise ball or an ergonomic chair to sit on.
- Make sure to spend time away from your desk and standing up. Set a timer on your phone or computer to give yourself regular 5-10 minute breaks.
Take a look at the graphic above for examples of poor sitting and good sitting.
Exercise to improve posture
Before we show you some of the exercises you can do to improve posture, we’d like to be clear about one thing. If you are currently experiencing pain, you should see a functional therapist such as a physio or osteopath. We’d also suggest you visit a fitness professional for postural analysis. That way you’ll get a better understanding of any postural issues you may have before you embark on a programme to correct them.
If you spend most of your day sitting, it’s likely you have a set of postural issues that are very common and caused by the same muscular dysfunctions. The culprits tend to be stretched and inactive glutes, tight hips, lengthened inactive upper back muscles, disengaged abdominals, shortened and curved spine.
Pain aside, in general, to improve posture, you need to stretch anything that is shortened or tight and strengthen anything that is weak.
In practice, posture is a very individual thing. Everyone is different. But, for a good number of practised sitters, the following remedial exercises will be very useful. Incorporate these into your daily life and you’ll go a long way to keeping your posture in good order.
Exercises and stretches
Now, there are some really cool things you can do with equipment that is available in today’s market. However, we appreciate you may not have access to them. So, here are some of the exercises you can do at home without any equipment:
- Glute bridges.
You’ll find these described and demonstrated in our previous blog on the 5 best posture exercises.
Here are some stretches you can do when you’ve done the exercises:
- Hip flexor stretch.
- Thigh stretch.
- Chest stretch.
- The warrior. This is a great whole body stretch but in this instance we use it to lift the chest and stretch the lats and groin area.
You’ll find all these in our previous blog on warming down.
The wrap up
Sitting is bad for you. It’s bad for your health and it’s bad for your posture. At least it is if you do it a lot.
Try to limit your sitting time. If you must sit for long periods then try and break those periods up by regularly standing up, moving and stretching out any tight muscles.
Try and get into a daily routine. First, ten minutes of postural exercises and stretches will go a long way to counteracting the effects of sitting on your posture. Second, daily moderate to vigorous exercise will help to counteract the negative physiological effects of sitting.