We all do it, but too much is not just associated with physical problems, but disease and longevity.
For millions of years, the human body squatted rather than sat. It was the normal posture, one compatible with overall health. Squatting not only helped muscles, bones, joints and other structures function well, but helped other areas too, including the body’s circulation and intestinal function.
Quite recently, in the last few thousand years, humans made a bad move by sitting more and squatting less. Of course, in some cultures, squatting is still popular today. And all young children can comfortably squat.
Perhaps the most unnatural physical position for the human body is sitting in modern chairs and seats, whether in your car, office, airplane or at the dining room table. For all people, even those who work out regularly, including athletes who participate in moderate-to-vigorous training, prolonged sitting is associated with significantly more injuries, ill health and even disease, all leading to an earlier death, compared to those who sit much less.
This information is not new, scientists and clinicians have been studying this public health hazard for decades. The most recent research comes from Hidde van der Ploeg and colleagues at the University of Sydney. Their study of 222,497 men and women 45 years and older, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (March 2012), showed that those who sat the most—11 or more hours a day—are 40 percent more likely to die within three years.
The average adult spends 90 percent of their leisure time sitting down. This involves eating, socializing, and, most especially, watching TV. While those in the study who were physically active had less affects from sitting stress, those who were inactive and sat the most had double the risk of dying within three years.
Sure, it’s relaxing to plop down in a La-Z-Boy and take it easy after getting home. How harmful can that be? The fact is, our modern society offers seating opportunities everywhere. Our early ancestors never had these so-called luxuries—for millions of years they squatted and stood almost all their waking hours, and rarely sat like we do today. So our bodies have not adapted to today’s unnatural sitting position. Seats are so plentiful that most people spend more sitting time than they realize, devoting much of their day doing it.
The technology trend in chair ergonomics over the past few decades was supposed to rescue us from sitting-down stress. The technology claims to cure aching backs, necks, and shoulders. But it hasn’t, despite the commercial success of businesses specializing in “body-contour” office chairs, car seats, toilets, and even back rests. While comfort is the most important factor in determining such things as the best chair for work and leisure, and the most appropriate car seat position, sitting is almost a no-win situation. The less you sit the better.
Sitting’s Double-Edged Sword
Sitting stress is a modifiable life-style behavior. Generally speaking, it can result in two separate patterns affecting our health. One is associated with more metabolic problems. This means more body fat, higher blood pressure, blood sugar problems, even cancer, heart disease and diabetes. This is the mechanism that can lead to an early death in those who sit the most.
For many years, scientists have been studying those who spend more time sitting, demonstrating that various aspects of our metabolism can become impaired. The reasons include reduced muscular activity, especially of the lower extremities, with associated decreases in blood flow, and can literally deform blood vessels. There is also a general stress stimulus that could contribute to reduced health just like any physical, chemical or mental stress impairs body function.
The second pattern affects our biomechanics. This may induce muscle imbalance, tendon and ligament impairment, and joint stress. It’s the reason increased sitting can cause, contribute to, or maintain a physical injury.
The unnatural positions of sitting in modern chairs, car seats and couches places the pelvis in a stressful position causing the whole spine to twist, flex and extend in order to compensate for this unnatural position. In turn, this affects the shoulders and arms, and thighs and legs. In particular, your joints are most affected, from those in the pelvis and entire spine, to the hips, shoulders and even the jaw joints. Muscles take much of the brunt of sitting stress, which is not unlike wearing bad shoes. To keep the body from getting too twisted, the muscles try their best to compensate for such unnatural positions—some get tighter while others weaker. This, in turn, has a bad effect on your posture and gait. Once the muscles start making these changes, literally sacrificing their normal activity to prevent joint, bone, or ligament damage, you get used to sitting without feeling bad.
I’m not talking about avoiding all sitting, but for those who spend a significant amount of time sitting down—which is the majority of people, whether active or not—reduce the time spent in that unnatural position as much as possible. This means being on your feet more instead of hitting the couch or chair. It also might mean creating a standing workstation, which involves having your computer, writing surface or other items higher up off the desk so you can stand and work comfortably. Right now, I’m writing this article standing, with my computer at a higher level that’s easy for my arms, hands, head and eyes.
It does take a little more energy to stand compared to sitting. This occurs because you use more muscles. And until you get used to this posture—a couple of weeks in most cases—you may not be able to take the jump from a lot of sitting to much more standing overnight.
Reclining, even just using a footrest, sitting on the floor, and even lying are more natural positions for the body. But the goal should be more standing and less sitting.
With additional standing you’ll not only remain more mechanically stable with better muscle function, as the months pass you’ll burn significantly more calories to reduce extra body fat.
Of course, there’s a catch: To really reap the benefits of less sitting you have to be in reasonably good aerobic shape, and only wear good or no shoes. You just might be amazed how much better you feel.