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Is Sitting Down All Day Bad For Your Health?

A sedentary lifestyle is responsible for many health problems today. But with office jobs requiring long desk-bound hours, how can we work hard without suffering the associated negative health effects? 

Victoria Beckham was wearing Hervé Léger before we’d heard of bodycon, and had the Pob when long tresses were in vogue – so photographs of her at a ‘treadmill desk’, walking as she worked, should send a clear message: sitting is out. Or, at least, it should be, given the myriad health problems that sitting for eight hours a day, as many of us do, can lead to. 

Ben Lewis is a personal trainer at luxury health club Third Space. “Ultimately, sitting down all day is a problem. Posture-wise, it can lead to a rounded back, a protruding neck and a core that’s not activated.” Jason Patel, clinical director and osteopath at Freedom Clinics, agrees. His patients experience “facet joint pain, joint degeneration, disc bulges and degeneration, trapped and compressed nerves and increased spinal curve development”. 

As for Lewis’ osteopath colleague Henry Howe: “80 per cent of us will get spinal pain at some point, and there’s not one part of the bodily system that doesn’t suffer from sitting down all day. Your immune system, cardiovascular system, hormones… they’re all impeded by a sedentary lifestyle.” It’s even affecting how we process food, he says. “Studies show that inflammatory markers in the blood rise when we sit down directly after eating, and we should stand up for 20 minutes after lunch to prevent this.”

Dr Luke Powles, GP at Bupa, has even worse news. “Being sedentary increases the likelihood of weight gain, diabetes and cardiovascular issues such as heart disease and strokes.”

There’s also the mental health aspect. “The body is an inflammatory environment and when high stress hormones have no release, it can lead to anxiety and depression,” says Howe.

Almost 31 million sick days were lost in 2013 due to back, neck and muscle problems, says the Office for National Statistics, and the Work Foundation estimates that bone and joint pains cost the EU’s economies €240bn (£200bn) annually. The World Health Organization has cited physical inactivity as the fourth biggest killer on the planet – perhaps it’s no surprise that sitting down all day has been dubbed the new smoking. 

Rectifying this is multipronged. First, posture is key. Tishani Sitters is an osteopath at Freedom Clinics. Clients typically visit her four times, she tells me, and at the end, she sends them off with instructions on how to make their workplace ergonomically optimised, which involves “a supportive chair and the keyboard and screen a certain distance away”. Powles at Bupa agrees, adding, “You could also consider an adjustable standing desk.”

Workplace aligned, next up is exercise, which can help counter the effects of sitting down – but approach with caution. “You can’t go from sitting down all day to straight into the gym,” says Lewis. Third Space has a serious induction procedure, watching you perform simple moves to assess a starting point before focusing on goals. Do the induction, says Lewis. Otherwise, “You won’t know what you’re doing and could be working the same muscles that are already tight.” After sitting down for a long time, you want to do things like extensions, he says, “to open everything up”. 

Patel has seen the ramifications of poor training. “A lot of our patients have sports injuries. They spend 40-80 hours at their desk, and then train hard in the gym and run marathons. It’s going from one end of the spectrum to the other.” To help, Freedom Clinics offer free 15-minute consultations and extensive pain treatments: “Anything from soft tissue work, articulations, and trigger point therapy to working joints, stretching, dry needling and laser,” says Sitters.   

Exercise can help counter the effects of sitting down – but approach with caution

The good news: to negate the problem we don’t necessarily need to spend hours pumping iron. Low-resistance exercise such as yoga is very beneficial for mental clarity, as well as helping with breathing, posture and stretching. Better still, effects of sitting down can be partially negated by small amounts of moving around throughout the day, says Powles. “Stand up and walk around your office floor, make a cup of tea or visit the printer. Get off the bus early to walk the last ten minutes to work or home.” Lewis agrees: “Movement and regular breaks are really important. It’s not always realistic to take a half hour break, but traders can stand up while they make phone calls and deals.” 

Our generation is more sedentary than previous ones, with the reduced need for manual work and the rise of computers and TV.  So, is sitting the new smoking? It’s a bold claim, but, says Howe, “If we could reverse the sedentary culture, it would have a bigger impact than if everyone stopped smoking.” While we can’t stop working, we can stretch, stand and exercise to counter the effects as much as possible. We'll see you at yoga.