“Sitting is the next smoking.”
You may have heard this phrase already (and odds are you were probably sitting when you read it). Coined by Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and author of the book Get Up!, the entire quote (originally printed in the Los Angeles Times), bears repeating. Levine puts it bluntly:
“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”
Yikes! The doc paints a pretty scary picture for not only the millions of folks who work in an office all day, but also the estimated 53 million freelancers (including writers) whose livelihood depends on clocking serious hours on their computer screens.
As a whole, Americans spend about 13 hours a day with their rear-ends in either a chair or on the couch, according to a recent survey commissioned by Ergotron, a global manufacturing company. Scientists have even coined a phrase around the epidemic of sitting and its health consequences: Sitting Disease.
Let’s face it, it’s time to rethink our relationship with our backsides. Luckily, if you work from home, own a business or freelance from various coffee shops, then you have a serious advantage over those who punch the office time clock. You probably have a lot more flexibility in how you structure your time as well as how you set up your work space than most workers do.
And that means that YOU have the ability to get off that chair and do something about your situation before “Sitting Disease” has a chance to set in!
The Connection Between Inactivity and Ill Health
Before we get to the actions you can take RIGHT NOW for your health, let’s take a look at some of the specifics that Levine and others cite when it comes to the perils of sitting.
If you like research, there is a mountain of evidence that suggests that long periods of sitting leads to cancer, diabetes, heart disease and a shorter lifespan. Here are some sources to get you started:
- According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for death, leading to an estimated 3.2 million deaths globally each year. In addition to the conditions already mentioned, inactivity in general can lead to colon and breast cancer, depression, hip and vertebrae fracture and obesity.
- A 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine analyzed 47 separate studies on sedentary behavior. The researchers found that “prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity.”
They also found that the more time you spent in inactivity, the greater your risk of disease. Likewise, the more exercise you engage in, the less sedentary behavior will have an effect on you.
- A 2007 study conducted at the University of Missouri- Columbia found that inactivity can lead to changes at the cellular level. They came to the following conclusion:
“…the average nonexercising person may become even more metabolically unfit in the coming years if they sit too much, thereby limiting the normally high volume of intermittent nonexercise physical activity in everyday life.”
In other words, the more you sit, day after day without moving, the more difficult it may be for your body to adjust to movement in the future, thus repeating a vicious cycle of ill health.
Many folks “feel old” just because their bodies have maladjusted to so much sitting and inactivity.
4 Things You Can Do to Avoid Sitting Disease Now
According to Levine and others, these are the BEST THINGS you can do for your health if your work and/or lifestyle demands a lot of stationary work:
1. Get up every half hour
In his book Get Up!, Dr. Levine says that for every hour we sit, we lose two hours of our lives. So why not beat this stat to the punch and make it a point to get up and move every half hour instead? Yes, I know this can be VERY hard to do, especially when a deadline looms. But remember that your “stretch break” doesn’t have to be extensive—and it may even give you a fresh perspective when you have writer’s block. In fact, talking a quick walk can help increase your creativity significantly according to several studies.
Make a cup of tea. Do a few dishes. Pet your cat. Go outside and stare at the flowers. Or actually stretch a little. Squats, toe touches, or even taking a few deep breaths while reaching your arms to the sky can do wonders for both your body and your mind, and in about 5 minutes time!
WRITING TIP: When you sit down to write, set an alarm on your phone or computer for half an hour. When the alarm goes off, finish that last sentence and take a stretch break. A good resource for an easy-to-use timer right at your computer is http://www.e.ggtimer.com.
2. Get in some focused exercise at least 3-4 times a week
In addition to stretch breaks to restart your body and mind, take the time to do some more in-depth movement at least every other day. A general rule of thumb when it comes to exercise: any amount of movement is better than none at all. Meaning that if you only have 15 minutes to walk or do a rebound session, do it! You will benefit a lot more than if you stay seated.
A 2016 study published in The Lancet found that 60 minutes of moderate exercise (like walking, riding a bike, dancing, rebounding, golfing or swimming) cancels out eight hours of sitting and also eliminates the higher risk of early death that has been proven to come from too much sitting.
Don’t have an hour to devote to working out? Why not try “Burst Training,” otherwise known as interval exercising. The formula is simple: Go “all out” for 30 seconds to a minute (running, fast walking, rebounding, swimming, dancing, whatever). Then rest for 2 to 3 minutes. Do that 10 times and you are done! Studies have also shown that Burst Training (mostly in the form of interval walking) is a better way to go for those with Type 2 Diabetes than taking a longer jaunt because blood sugar is more controlled with an interval workout.
3. Trade in your Cheetos and chips for healthy work snacks
This is a bit of a no-brainer, for obvious reasons. Snacking on high-carb, high-sugar foods in addition to sitting for long periods of time can be a recipe for multiple chronic illnesses. One of the main concerns doctors and scientists express in regards to sitting are cellular changes that can happen when a person is inactive for many hours at a time, day after day. These changes lead to metabolic syndrome, heart disease and diabetes in particular.
In addition, it is common knowledge that consuming fatty, sugary, high-carb, processed foods like chips and candy leads to these same conditions, as well as other more serious diseases like cancer. Combining inactivity and processed foods together spells double the health trouble down the line.
On the other hand, we all know how the “urge to munch” can overtake us, especially when we are in deep thought or, on the other hand, have a creative dry spell. If you get the munchies during your workday, try these instead: celery sticks with almond butter, green apples, carrots, blueberries, flax seed crackers or kale chips. Have them handy inside the frig or in your cupboard and make them your go-to snacks whenever the urge strikes.
4. Use ergonomic chairs and standing desks
Finally, try sitting on an ergonomic chair device or even standing for part of your workday. The internet is chock full of ideas and options for standing desks, ergonomic sit/stand “chairs” and even treadmill desks! If you want to upgrade your office space and you have a little cash to invest, the sky really is the limit as to what you can do. Yes, there are even portable standing desktop units that you can take into Starbuck’s with you!
If you are on a budget or don’t want to make the commitment to revamping your workspace just yet, there are ways to create a standing desk on the cheap. If you work on a laptop, simply putting an adjustable folding table, like the kind you may have bedside, on top of your current desktop or a low coffee table is one temporary solution if you work at home and want to try out standing and working for a few days.
For the majority of the American workforce, including the 34% of the working population who are freelancers, being stationary is simply part of the deal. Unless you decide to change jobs and become a landscape artist or a chef de cuisine, odds are Sitting Disease is something you are just going to have to make accommodations for so that it doesn’t affect you. The really good news is that now you know what causes the most ill-health in any work environment and you know how you can avoid it.
Simply get up, stretch, move, breath…and move on a regular basis. Then you will be on your way to vibrant and creative health!
Dr. Veronique Desaulniers
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