Get Up, Stand Up: Combatting “Sitting Disease”

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Over the last few years of working from home, staying at home orders, and social distancing, many people are sitting even more than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Sitting is something so commonplace we often don’t realize just how much of our day is truly spent sedentary. However, sitting for too long can have many negative impacts on health and longevity.

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that prolonged sitting was associated with an increased risk of 34 chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Yikes!

A typical American is sedentary for 21 hours out of the day. Including exercise and physical activity, people across the U.S. only spend approximately 3 hours out of the day simply standing.

This phenomenon has been coined as “Sitting Disease,” which, broadly speaking, is defined as a condition of increased sedentary behavior associated with adverse health effects. Sedentary behavior can be defined by two things: the position you are in, which is generally reclining or sitting, and the amount of energy expenditure that your body is experiencing.

You may be asking yourself, “But I work out every day, does this still apply to me?”

Unfortunately, according to The Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the “Active Couch Potato” phenomenon states that even an active person who works out five times a week still faces the risks associated with “Sitting Disease” if they are living a sedentary lifestyle outside of the gym. Unfortunately, you can’t undo eight plus hours of sitting with a workout!

Although participating in moderate to vigorous exercise 3-5 times a week is recommended, it’s important to start with the first step: standing. Dr. Brian Liem, MD, FAAPMR, from UW Sports Medicine, says that a “lifestyle of prolonged sitting is distinctly different even from a lifestyle absent of routine exercise.”

A study at Mayo Clinic found that for every 2 hours spent sitting 352 calories are conserved as compared to someone standing. Dr. Liem emphasizes that “standing can help get some of that metabolic activity back up because standing causes contractions in your postural muscles in your back, hips, and knees to keep you upright.”

The majority of Americans stare at a computer screen during the day, whether it be at an office desk or at home. If not, we are looking at the computer in our pockets – our smartphones. An average office worker sits for 15 hours every day, which calculates to about 80,000 hours spent sitting over a lifetime.

Technology has become an accepted part of our everyday lives, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be cognizant of what our bodies are doing while we are using technology.

Staring at your computer with poor posture causes the development of a hump at the top of your back, the shortening of your hip flexors, shortened abdominal muscles, a caving chest, weakened shoulders, arm pain, numbness and tingling in your extremities, and worst of all, traumatic pressure on the disks in your back. All of these symptoms are not uncommon.

Good posture is also important when using a smartphone because a human head weighs about 10–12 lbs. Studies show that bending your head down to the 60-degree typical texting position can make your head weigh about 60 lbs. We spend about 700 – 1,400 hours on our smartphones every year, so putting that much stress on our necks and spines just by bending our heads for that long can start to develop problems.

So, what are some solutions?

We know that it is difficult to be removed from technology and that many common solutions can be expensive or difficult to find on the market. Instead, we emphasize the importance of awareness in terms of your posture, bodily movement, and the amount of sitting/reclining per day.

For every hour of sitting, try to get about ten minutes of standing in. For every 30 minutes that you are doing work, there should be 20 minutes of actual computer work, and then a 10-minute break. That 10-minute break should be 8 minutes of standing and 2 minutes of stretching. This alone is a pretty big change from sitting for hours on end, and should over time give back to your body exponentially.

Incorporate movement breaks into your day

Check out the Whole U’s Flex at your Desk and Stretch at your Desk handouts to learn a few movements that you could try at work. We also encourage you to join The Whole U’s daily movement class at 11 a.m. 15-minutes of stretching and light movement to give your body a much needed sitting break.

When you are sitting, think of an ergonomic posture – bringing your keyboard and mouse closer to your body, keeping your shoulder blades pulled back, relaxing your elbows by your side, and maintaining a neutral spine. The Whole U’s Working with Better Posture handout is a great place to start.

Learn more by watching 2 recorded webinars

Working Ergonomics with Dr. Peter Johnson

Join Dr. Peter Johnson, Professor Emeritus, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, and Adjunct Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering to learn everything you need to know about creating an ergonomic workspace—wherever you’re working! Click here to download Dr. Johnson’s updated slides. 

Sitting Disease Deep Dive with UW Sports Medicine

Elliot O’Connor, DPT, and Dr. Brian Liem from UW Sports Medicine share information about what sitting disease is, how it can lead to chronic back and neck pain, and provide some simple exercises that you can do to prevent and beat the sitting disease.

Small steps can make a big difference – literally!

You can also combat “Sitting Disease” through small things. Try parking farther away, standing while you eat lunch, and doing one-leg balance stances while you watch television or brush your teeth. Every little step you take is one less moment spent sitting.

Alongside standing, aerobic exercise is extremely important. As recommended by the HSS, you should be performing a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity about 5 days a week or 20 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity about 3 days a week.

Fight against the avoidable effects of “Sitting Disease” by standing up and moving away from a sedentary lifestyle!