There are many things you read online – especially on health sites – that are all too easy to ignore. We all want to know how to get great abs and have more energy, but we want fast results and we aren’t so interested in changing the tiny daily habits that can either support or damage our general health. This is where we’re going wrong, as it’s these tiny changes that ultimately coalesce to bring about visible changes for the better or for the worse and to really define our health.
A great example is when you read about the damage sitting is doing to us at work and when we get home. We read about this a lot and yet most of us won’t take it on board. Avoiding sitting is hardly convenient, and it’s not going to lead to any immediate six-pack abs… so it’s easy to ignore.
But when you write about health for a living and you repeatedly come across more and more examples of just how bad sitting is for you… then it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore.
To bring you up to speed, let’s take a look at some of the compelling evidence that we need to do something about our sedentary lifestyles.
Sitting and Your Health
There has been a lot of furore surrounding recent studies that focus on just how bad for us sitting is (here’s a review of some studies). Constantly we are told that sitting for 20 minutes will ‘cancel out’ twenty minutes of exercise, or that it will take years off of our lives… It’s a bleak picture.
But how does all this happen? It’s easy to ignore when you aren’t made aware of the physical changes occurring in the body, so what is the mechanism of action here?
Well for starters, sitting is terrible for your posture. When you sit down this means your glutes are inactive as well as being stretched and flattened. At the same time, your hip flexors (responsible for bringing your legs upwards towards your body) are shortened. The result? You end up with an imbalance that results in your pelvis being pulled forwards which creates back pains.
Meanwhile, if you’re sitting in the office you will also probably be slumped backwards while leaning forward with your arms to reach the keyboard. This places more strain on your spine and neck, and at the same time means your shoulders are rolled inwards and your pecs are tightened. The result, another imbalance leading to pain in your upper back and neck.
This posture is awful, but what makes it devastating is the fact that you’ll be holding it for hours at a time as you sit at work for eight hours or more. Not good.
Perhaps even more serious is that the posture we take up at work prevents us from breathing properly as our stomachs are ‘folded over’. Most of us breathe through our chest rather than through our stomach as a result of this, which actually isn’t good for us as it’s less efficient than ‘stomach breathing’ which is how we breathe as infants. Breathing through the chest alone means you take in about 13% less oxygen and results in ‘fitful’ shallow breaths that actually increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol among other things is responsible for making us feel stressed, for storing fat and for suppressing the immune system. Shallow breathing also leads to hypertension (giving you those knots in your shoulders among other places), damages productivity (as you’re not getting as much oxygen to the brain) and is less efficient when exercising.
Combine this with the high stress environment of work and you have a recipe for disaster.
Sitting means you’re not moving which in turn means that you’re not burning calories, that your metabolism slows down, and that you’re not building muscle. The hormonal response to this is to encourage fat storage and to slow everything right down (metabolism, circulation, brain function) which contributes to weight gain and causes lethargy and depression. And remember that your heart is a muscle, if you don’t use it, it will become weaker.
So that’s the problem, but what’s the solution? When you live in an age where you have pretty much no option other than to spend large amounts sitting, what can you do to mitigate the damage this is doing to you?
Well one of the first things you can do is to at least sit right. Sit up straight and breathe correctly through your stomach (think about it consciously) and you’ll reduce backache while also reducing stress and cortisol levels.
Better yet – get up regularly to move around. Take regular ‘smoking breaks’ (minus the cigarettes) and use these to go for walks, to chat on the phone and to generally move. Even a little movement will encourage your heart to get going again. If you work from home you can take this even further and do regular ‘micro workouts’ throughout the day. You can even look at getting a standing desk and spending some time working at that. Kneeling chairs are also an improvement – or you could even try squatting (which is what we would often do in the wild).
The evenings meanwhile you have more control over. If you’re currently spending your whole time sitting down watching TV in the evening, then get up to do some cooking, to go for walks, to play some sports or generally to keep moving. Joining some classes or just going for walks with friends will do wonders for your mood, fitness and health.