You may want to stand while reading this


You may want to stand while reading this

Sitting less is possibly the best health advice you have never heard. Inactivity is estimated to be behind 5.3 million preventable deaths in the world each year. ANNELIESE BURGESS looks at what some addiction specialists refer to as ‘chair-use disorder’ and how to stop sitting our way to an early, preventable death.


HUMAN bodies are designed for standing upright. Our hearts and cardiovascular systems work more effectively when we stand, and our bowels function more efficiently (which is why bedridden people often experience problems with bowel function). Most importantly, moving our bodies in an upright position also keeps our bones and muscles strong.

But we humans spend more time sitting, lying and lounging than ever. The World Health Organisation says we are facing a pandemic of physical inactivity and that our sedentary lifestyle is as dangerous as smoking. It is the cause of a whole range of chronic diseases, including cancers.

More and more research underlines how dangerous a sedentary lifestyle is for your health, and getting people out of their chairs has become a significant theme in the medical world because it is now accepted that inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death from non-communicable diseases.

There are a myriad ways in which a sitting lifestyle undermines our health.

“Excessive sitting is a lethal activity,” says James Levine, a doctor of endo­crinology at the Mayo Clinic. He has studied sedentary behaviour for nearly 20 years and is the most widely quoted expert on the topic. He told the New York Times: “The conventional wisdom is that if you watch your diet and get aerobic exercise at least a few times a week, you’ll effectively offset your sedentary time. However, a growing body of inactivity research suggests that this advice makes scarcely more sense than the notion that you could counter a pack-a-day smoking habit by jogging."

The key, he says, is moving throughout the day.

Robert C van de Graaf is an addiction medicine specialist. He treats patients who are addicted to the use of rewarding consumer products, such as alcohol, tobacco, ultra-processed food and different types of drugs. Comfortable chairs, he says, are also a “rewarding consumer product". He argues that individuals with excessive sedentary behaviour should be considered addicted to chairs. He says an industry has developed to meet our addiction to comfortable seating, just as it did to satisfy our craving for tobacco, alcohol and fast food. We now have “Big Tobacco”, “Big Alcohol”,  “Big Food” and “Big Chair”. 

And the effects of Big Chair are no less life-threatening than any of the health hazards posed by the other three.

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Excessive sitting: 8 scary health facts

#1 Weakens our muscles

Sitting for long periods can weaken our large leg and bum muscles. These large muscles are important for walking and stabilising the body. If these muscles are weak, you are more likely to injure yourself from falls and strains when you exercise.

#2 Makes us fat and sick

Moving our muscles helps us digest the fats and sugars we eat. If we spend a lot of time sitting, digestion is not as efficient, so you retain those fats and sugars as fat in your body.

Even if you exercise but spend a large amount of time sitting, you risk health problems, such as metabolic syndrome, also known as insulin resistance syndrome. This group of conditions includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high levels of “bad cholesterol" and high blood triglycerides (a type of bad fat). Together they raise your risk of coronary heart diseasediabetesstroke and other serious health problems.

#3 Affects our hips and backs

Sitting causes your hip flexor muscles to shorten, which can lead to problems with your hip joints. The same happens to the muscles in your back, especially if you don't sit in an ergonomically designed chair. Bad sitting posture can also compress the discs in your spine, which can be very painful.

#4 A cause of cancer

Emerging studies suggest the dangers of sitting include increasing your chances of developing some types of cancer, including lung, uterine and colon cancers. The reason why is not yet known. In Australia,  health authorities suspect a sedentary lifestyle is the second biggest cause of cancer after tobacco smoking.

#5 Anxiety and depression

We don’t yet understand the links between sitting and mental health as well as we do the links between sitting and physical health, but we do know that the risk of anxiety and depression is higher in people who sit more. Physical activity has positive effects on mood, so getting up and moving will have a positive effect on mental health.

#6 Causes heart disease

Study after study has shown a link between sitting for long periods and developing heart disease.

Some experts say that people who are inactive and sit for long periods have a 147% higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

#7 Leads to diabetes

Studies have shown that even just five days of lying in bed can lead to increased insulin resistance. Research suggests that people who spend more time sitting have a 112% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

#8 Affects veins in the legs

Sitting for long periods can lead to varicose veins or spider veins (a smaller version of varicose veins). This is because sitting causes blood to pool in your legs. Varicose veins are not usually dangerous but they are unsightly. 

Deep vein thrombosis is the real danger linked to sitting for too long, like on a long plane or car trip. DVT is when a blood clot forms in the veins of your leg, cutting off blood flow to other parts of your body like your lungs. This could result in pulmonary embolism, a serious health condition that can lead to death

Breaking our addiction to chairs

Researchers have shattered the idea that ticking off a big bout of vigorous exercise then spending the rest of the day crouching at a desk is sufficient for our health. Those epic stretches of sitting for the rest of the day make a person who has run for an hour in the morning no less immune to the side effects of sedentary living than a lazy old couch potato.

The latest research suggests that 60–75 minutes per day of moderate-intensity activity is needed to combat the dangers of excessive sitting. But the key is to move throughout the day, often and regularly. 

It is the long stretches of stillness that are killing us.

Dr James Levine coined the term NEAT, which stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This refers to the energy expended through everyday activity, which is not “deliberate exercise" — things like walking to work, working in the garden and doing chores. We can reap major health benefits by making small changes and improvements that increase our NEAT. And in the world of NEAT, even the littlest things matter. 

Small tips for moving a lot more

  • Walk. Walk. Walk. Whenever you can.
  • Or cycle if that's your jam.
  • Always use the stairs, not a lift.
  • Park your car further away from wherever you are going and walk the rest of the way. Every bit helps.
  • If you work in an office, use your lunch break to take a quick walk around the block or spin around a park if you are lucky enough to be near one.
  • Pace around the house while on phone or video calls.
  • Organise walking meetings wherever you can. Walk and talk.
  • Stand while you read your emails.
  • Take quick breaks during the day and walk in your garden if you have one, or up and down a flight of stairs if you live in a block of flats.
  • Instead of sitting on the sofa reading, consider listening to audio books while you walk.
  • Try to get movement and walking in while tidying the house or doing chores.
  • Stand on public transport instead of trying to nab the nearest seat.

♦ VWB ♦

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