By Robert Silverman, DC, DACBN, DCBCN, MS, CCN, CNS, CSCS, CIISN, CKTP, CES, HKC, FAKTR
Take a freelancer, an office worker, and an orthodontist; what do they all have in common? They spend the majority of their workday sitting. Worse, they all likely take part in sedentary out-of-office behaviors, too—like watching TV, playing video games, or scrolling through social media. According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity ranks fourth on the list of leading preventable killers, with an estimated 3.2 million people dying each year as a result.1 The Centers for Disease Control reports that we spend 75 cents of every healthcare dollar on chronic conditions linked to sedentary behavior.
Why? When we sit, muscles in our lower body turn off and automatically adopt positions that shut off our glutes as well as our trunk and spine muscles. As a result, we experience compromised body function, increased blood sugar levels, and joint and soft-tissue injuries; injuries can vary from neck and back muscle soreness all the way to chronic illness. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to prevent, and/or reduce, the adverse effects of sitting that almost every professional can start doing today.
Take a stand
Standing desks are becoming increasingly common in the workplace, and with good reason. Seated office workers have more musculoskeletal injuries than any other industry sector worker. Those who sit for more than nine hours each day are also prone to developing chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.2 If acquiring a standing desk is not an option for you, there are inexpensive desktop converters that enable you to convert your current desk to a standing desk. Especially for those who aren’t sure if they can manage standing up all day, desktop converters are an easy way to try out this new way of working.
While standing is better than sitting, if you have to sit, do so in an ergonomic manner. To start, practice good sitting habits. When sitting at a desk, your feet should be flat on the floor, and the height of the chair should allow your thighs to angle down slightly. This position allows you to place your weight through your “sitting bones,” rather than rounding your lower back and causing your shoulders to round and your posture to slump forward. As for your keyboard height, set the keyboard high enough so that your elbows are bent approximately 90 degrees. If the tray is too low and cannot be adjusted, place the keyboard on your desk. Finally, the mouse should be placed at the same level as the keyboard.
A great way to improve your posture while sitting is swapping out your office chair for an exercise ball. While seated on an exercise ball, you engage your core muscles to support your back and maintain proper posture. Plus, it’s nearly impossible to slump forward into that slouching position without risking losing your balance.
Schedule regular breaks
In a recent study published in the journal Sports Medicine, researchers compared the effects of individuals sitting for prolonged periods with those who took breaks from sitting and engaged in light to moderate activity.3 The results of the study suggest that taking a break from sitting every 30 minutes and incorporating even light activity had significant effects. In those individuals who took breaks, physical activity of any intensity was shown to reduce their concentrations of glucose and insulin in the blood up to 9 hours after eating a meal.
So whether you sit or stand, taking breaks from your desk every 30 minutes should become part of your normal routine. Remember, even a quick walk to the break room or bathroom will help. Better yet, a 20-minute walk around the office block promotes blood flow that brings important nutrients to all spinal structures and reduces blood glucose and insulin levels.
If remembering to take twice hourly breaks seems unrealistic, put your smartphone to use. Download an app—such as Stand Up! or Sitting Timer—to remind yourself to take breaks from your desk. It may not be possible to get up every time the reminder goes off, but it will help you be more cognisant that you’ve been sitting for a while—and that your health depends on your taking sufficient breaks.
Stretch at your desk
If you don’t have time to leave the office on regular intervals, take your break at your desk and stretch. Depending on the amount of space you have in your work area, a variety of stretches, like ankle and wrist rolls, a hands-over-head stretch, head rolls, and shoulder rolls, can all help relieve the stress sitting causes your body.
If you have room to move around a bit, try these stretches and exercises:
Those who want to reverse the negative effects of sitting should start right away. Switching to a standing desk, taking regular breaks, prioritising short busts of light activity, and stretching can all help expedite the body’s ability to recover from long hours spent sitting. Mild back and neck soreness may be just an inconvenience now, but sustained sitting habits can lead to chronic health problems down the road. The time to take a stand against the sitting epidemic is now.
This content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare professional for advice on medical issues.