Take a Stand for Health
By now you may have heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking.” Beyond being clever, the catchphrase, coined by Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative director Dr. James Levine, underscores a disturbing fact. According to Levine, we lose two hours of our lives for every hour we spend sitting. In fact, in an interview with the LA Times, Levine makes a further comparison: “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.” With the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys showing that 50-70 percent of Americans sit for six or more hours each day, sitting has truly become an epidemic.
The sitting epidemic is fueled by contemporary culture and lifestyle, particularly in the U.S. Our bodies and brains developed in response to particular environmental pressures and an active lifestyle. These days, most of us are not exposed to life-threatening scenarios on a regular basis. We exert little energy in our daily efforts to survive. Even our schools and workplaces promote the sedentary lifestyle: children are expected to sit still for hours upon end, and our workplaces have us sitting at desks, often typing away at keyboards for most of the day.. Even our recreational habits have become less active: video games, instant access to movies and television shows, and virtual social environments tempt us to sit more and stand less.
The physical effects of this cultural shift are daunting. Excessive sitting has been linked to hormonal changes, increased inflammation, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. From a chiropractic standpoint, sitting can distort the natural curvature of the spine, cause undue stress on nerves and ligaments, overstress muscle tissue, and compress the vertebral discs and spinal joints. As we age, too much sitting leads to disability. According to an NPR report, research out of Northwestern University found that, “For people 60 and older, each additional hour a day spent sitting increases the risk of becoming physically disabled by about 50 percent — no matter how much exercise they get.” With U.S. Census data revealing that nearly half of the population over age 65 have a disability, the impact on our aging population, their families, and their communities is significant.
The science behind the sitting epidemic revolves around a neat acronym: NEAT. NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Along with exercise activity thermogenesis, NEAT is the third component of human energy expenditure—calories burned during daily activity (basal metabolic rate, which is the energy required for basic body functions, and the energy needed to process food are the other two.) Some people have a “NEAT switch” that gets them up and moving after over-eating, while other people do not, which can lead to obesity. Surprisingly, the simple act of standing burns more calories than sitting, as noted in the Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) table below.
|Seated work (no option of moving)
|Seated work (discretion and requirement to move)
|Standing work (eg, homemaker, cashier)
|Strenuous work (eg, farming)
|Data based on a basal metabolic rate of 1,600 cal/d. Adapted from Black AE, Coward WA, Cole TJ, Prentice AM. Human energy expenditure in affluent societies: an analysis of 574 doubly-labelled water measurements. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1996;50:72-92
So what can we do about this national health crisis?
Unlike with anti-smoking campaigns, we can’t tax chairs and benches, people can’t be banned from sitting in public spaces, and we can’t enact a legal sitting age. We can, however, actively participate in our own health. As shown above, just standing makes a difference. Some workplaces and even schools are using sit-to-stand desks, which allow the user to set their workspace at a different height in order to stand. If your boss is not quite there yet, or if you’re retired, here are some simple things to do to reduce the effects of sitting.
- Stand. It seems obvious, but, as shown above, standing burns more calories. Instead of just sitting during a lunch break, try standing for a bit, or even doing some simple stretches like bending forward and reaching for your toes to get the blood flowing. Standing a little more each day not only increases your metabolism, it also helps tone muscles, burns calories, and increases blood flow.6
- Walk. Directly related to standing, of course, is walking. You should get up and walk around every 20-30 minutes.
- Stretch at your desk. Shrug your shoulders up to your ears and hold that position for several seconds before releasing. Gently stretch your fingers, hands, wrists and arms by bending at the joints. Straighten your legs and point and flex your toes. These simple stretches are great for multitasking: the person on the other end of the phone will never know!
- Do eye yoga or eye palming to stretch and moisten your eyes. Try moving your eyes in circles of varying sizes, or doing a figure eight with them. Or you can stare at the tip of your nose—and no, your face won’t freeze like that. Eye palming is simply cupping your hands over your eyes and breathing. As well as giving your eyes a break, this can make your vision clearer and reduce headaches.7
- Use good posture. Your mother was never more correct. Good posture goes a long way to preserving the overall health of your spine and reducing stress on the nervous tissue of the spinal cord (which provides nerve input to all your muscles and internal organs.) Maintaining and supporting the natural curves of the spine is paramount to spinal health. While sitting at your desk/computer, use a lumbar and/or a thoracolumbar support cushion height along with proper workstation ergonomics (correct workstation, chair, and monitor height, proper keyboard placement, etc.).
- Exercise, exercise, exercise. With summer coming, it’s easier to jog, swim, or hike, and there’s always the treadmill or elliptical machines at the gym. While, by definition, exercising doesn’t affect your NEAT, it does help your overall metabolism and health.
Moving around during the workday not only benefits individuals, but companies and schools as well. Research shows that productivity and focus improve if employees and students have the ability to stand or move during the day.8 According to Dr. Levine, “This is about hard-core productivity. You will make money if your workforce gets up and gets moving. Your kids will get better grades if they get up and get moving.”9 Like ergonomic keyboards, standing desks are becoming a workplace necessity.
With summer coming, we’re likely to be more active outside of work. Warm weather tends to get us out-of-doors on the weekends and inspires us to exercise more overall. But after spending the weekend on the trail, don’t forget your body during the weekday grind. Take a stand for your health by taking a stand at work.