John von Arnim on the claims that, when it comes to your health, sitting is the new smoking.
Are you sitting comfortably? You shouldn’t be. The World Health Organization has fingered physical inactivity as the fourth biggest killer on the planet, ahead of obesity. Australians spend an average of nine hours a day sitting – at work, in a car, watching TV or acquiring a computer screen facial tan. We are sitting ourselves to death, says Dr James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative.
In fact, he believes that our sedentary lifestyles are worse than inhaling tobacco smoke. In his best-selling book – Get Up! – Dr Levine, an obesity expert and one of the early pioneers of the treadmill desk, says sitting kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. For every hour we spend on our butts we lose two hours from our overall lifespan. How? Spending too much time sitting down affects the chromosomes in the cells – the DNA storage units in the body – disrupting the genetic code and causing premature ageing.
Factor in another seven to eight hours of sleeping and most people spend only 30 per cent of their time standing up. Such lengthy periods of doing little not only increase the risk of weight gain but can also lead to a hypochondriac’s list of major health issues from heart disease through colon cancer, diabetes, hip and back issues, deep vein thrombosis, osteoporosis, depression and even dementia.
Blood glucose levels and blood pressure rise and the body’s metabolism slows down the longer we spend on our rear ends, says Dr John Buckley, a UK expert in exercise science. Without short bursts of activity, the enzyme that breaks down fat accumulation in the body – lipoprotein lipase – also works less effectively, leading to long-term damage to the inside of the arteries.
Exercise No Protection
If you’re feeling smug about cycling to work or a daily jog, there’s a growing body of evidence that sitting down all day torpedos many of the benefits gained from regular exercise. According to Dr Buckley, light activity in two to three minute bursts is as beneficial as a solid 30 minutes of exercise.
The simple act of standing up elevates the heart rate from six to 10 beats a minute says Dr Buckley. “A faster heartbeat increases oxygen consumption, which in turn increases the number of kilojoules we burn. Over the course of a year, doing nothing but standing up instead of sitting could burn up 126,000 kilojoules (30,000 calories) and four kilos of human fat. If you want to put that into activity levels that would be the equivalent of running 10 marathons a year just by standing three or four hours in your day.”
Earlier this year Victoria Beckham posted a picture of herself on social media using a treadmill desk. But there are also conflicting views on whether standing for long periods is a better alternative to sitting. Standing puts a lot of pressure on your lower body, raising the risk of back problems, aching calves and feet, and varicose veins. So what’s a fair trade off for increasing blood flow to the brain by standing and becoming more alert, positive and task driven without breaking up with your chair?
In study after study from Canada, Australia, Germany, the US and the UK, most researchers recommend you should take regular breaks from the seated position. There’s no need to do cartwheels or squats in the office corridors. Standing during lunch, coffee breaks, conference calls and when you are using a mobile can easily add up to an hour on your feet every day. David Dunstan, Head, Physical Activity Laboratory at the Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, also recommends standing during meetings if possible – a healthy habit that also leads to shorter meetings.
US researchers found that three five-minute walks for every three hours of sitting can reverse damage caused to leg arteries. Apart from coffee and toilet breaks, that means getting up from your desk to walk to a co-worker’s desk instead of sending an email, or standing up when the desk phone rings and staying on your feet for the entire chat. Always take the stairs rather than the lift and never eat lunch at your desk.
Simple upper and lower body exercises can be a lifesaver, even if you can only do them watching TV or sitting at a computer. Leg swings loosen up the hips, hamstrings and glutes. Do 20 reps – backwards and forwards – on each leg.
Increase suppleness by squatting with your bum touching your ankles and hold for 30 seconds – do 10 reps each time to ease the pressure on backs and hips.
To get glutes moving, get down on all fours with the knees at hip width. Keep your back straight and raise one leg as high as you can – keeping the knee bent like a dog peeing. Repeat 10 to 15 times on each leg – at least three times a week but preferably daily.