Prolonged Sitting and its Effects on our Health:
There has been an increase in the amount of articles being written about the negative effects of prolonged sitting. These effects include increases in cardiovascular risk, heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, increases in depression, and early death just to name a few. In some instances, the articles give off the impression that sitting for long periods of time actually undoes the effects of exercise one may partake in. It is important to understand the problem from all aspects, consider what is meant by “sitting,” and how to balance physical inactivity and physical activity to help reduce negative health effects.
Is sitting really the issue here?
It appears that sitting for long periods of time has been connected to almost all health care issues when that may not actually be the case. It is important to note that typical news articles ignore many facts within the articles they create stories off of. For instance, many of the articles that have been written about sitting in connection to early death have ignored other parts of an individual’s lifestyle such as nutrition, level of physical activity, and socioeconomic status. Therefore, it is important to consider that diet, and level of physical activity also contribute to the effects of sitting for prolonged periods of time.
Sitting, or physical inactivity, has been shown to result in physical changes such as muscle weakness, muscle imbalances, decrease flexibility, promote negative postural changes, as well as systemic changes to the cardiovascular system, the digestive tract, and the respiratory system. Therefore, breaking up sitting periods by getting up and moving every so often needs to be complimented with changes in diet for best results.
Does sitting actually undo the effects of exercise?
It is recommended but the American College of Sports Medicine that adults commit to a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise per week. As well, strength training should be incorporated 3 times per week per muscle group. In fact, strength or resistance training has been shown to be effective regardless of age. Through an assessment by a physiotherapist, you can find out which exercises are best for your ability and goals.
However, many studies have started spreading the idea that sitting for prolonged periods of time is detrimental regardless of how much physical activity one does in a week, or that sitting for long periods of time actually undoes the amount of physical activity done in a week.
This is not accurate. Although the longer you sit overall and per sitting do increase the risk of death, this is not the full story. As with most things in life, there needs to be a balance between physical activity and physical inactivity/prolonged sitting. Although there are no guidelines yet for the balance between moving and sitting, it has been recommended that moving every 30 minutes or so is most beneficial as it has been associated with the lowest risk of early death. This is in addition to the recommended 150 minutes per week that a person should incorporate into their life, which roughly results in about 30 minutes a day of exercise that leaves one sweating and working hard.
It may seem overwhelming, however getting up every 30 minutes to move can be as simple as doing sit to stand exercises/squats, brisk walking around the office or in an uncrowded hallway, lunges, or going up and down the stairs. As well, it can be as simple as choosing more active modes of transportation such as avoiding elevators and escalators when you can or parking further from the store and walking a little bit longer. The idea is to move often and as much as you can (which is different for everyone) in addition to breaking a sweat and exercising 150 minutes per week.
I have been physically inactive for years- can I still change my risks?
This question is difficult to answer and the answer will change from person to person. In general, strength and resistance training has been shown to improve muscle strength which can lead to improved functional tasks (stairs, standing from a chair, general movement, walking/running). As well, the cardiorespiratory (blood circulation and breathing/lung function) can also be trained like muscles through cardio exercises. In addition to these, balance is an area that can be affected with inactivity or prolonged sitting. Through strength and balance training, one can improve stability and reduce the risk of falls which can lead to many other injuries.
For a more detailed plan that can suit your needs, make an appointment to see a physiotherapist. If you have had any heart issues, ensure that you get a full cardiac check-up from your family physician and incorporate their findings into a movement plan with the physiotherapist.
Where do I start?
Starting a life-style change to help improve your quality of life can be difficult if one doesn’t know where to begin. One of the best places to start would be with a physiotherapist, who can assess your muscle strength, postural imbalances, muscle imbalances, and general mobility. Physiotherapists are a great place to start because they take into account your cardiovascular health and medical history (post-heart attack, heart disease), any other conditions you may have (such as diabetes, arthritis, previous surgeries or replacements). Physiotherapists can help you find a place to initiate your physical activity journey while helping prevent future injuries.
In addition, it has been shown that lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity and reducing prolonged sitting periods is much easier when you do it in a group setting. So, it may be beneficial to find co-workers, colleagues, neighbourhood friends to join you. As well, since change like this is much easier on the worker if employers create physical activity environments, check to see if your employer has a program like this. There is an increased movement to get employers to incorporate physical activity and break up prolonged sitting periods within the workplace because studies have shown that a physically active employee gains 3 hours of productivity over a physically inactive employee.
Finally, sit to stand desks have already started to become a reality in some workplaces. It is important to consider the 50-50 rule when using these: 30 minutes of standing for every 30 minutes of sitting. This is however difficult for some to do and can lead to foot pain, therefore ask a physiotherapist about exercises you can do in the workplace to help.
Sometimes starting a change can be overwhelming. However, small steps in the right direction go a long way. An good place start would be to set a timer for 25 to 30 minutes. This can help with indicating how long you have been sitting and to help you be aware of when it is time to get up and move. For more information on what exercises you can do for yourself, you can always visit a physiotherapist and ask for help. After an assessment of your strength and mobility, they will better be able to give you a program that helps you make the most of your movement breaks throughout your day.