SITTING down all day is one of the unhealthiest habits we have, increasing the risk of back, leg and heart problems as well as some cancers. Here a top physiotherapist explains what we’re doing wrong and how to increase activity every day.
We’ve long known that drinking, smoking and eating to excess are bad for us. But a new habit, one that we do for up to eight hours a day, could be the real threat to our health.
Sitting is a growing area of concern with studies confirming the damage that remaining sedentary day after day wreaks on every part of the body.
From slowed brain function, strained neck and back, disc damage, muscle degeneration, leg disorders, weight gain, a link with colorectal cancers, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, sitting still whether at our desks, or slumped on the sofa is, dangerous.
Now new research from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy reveals that one in five of us work through our lunch break every day, with employers neglecting to encourage staff to take proper breaks.
But moving our bodies during the day is imperative, says Lucie Noble, senior physiotherapist at the London Bridge Hospital.
“I would definitely encourage people to take a break during the day, preferably an hour lunch break but even a half hour lunch-break is better than nothing.
“One of the key problems of the sedentary lifestyle related to office work is the impact on your metabolism – the way in which you metabolise sugar and fats reduces substantially with inactivity, and this can lead to diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
“It’s not just movement that is important in maintaining weight loss – sitting for long periods of time and general low-activity levels slows down your metabolism and the way that your body breaks down fats and sugars – and that’s when people start storing fat in the abdomen.
“Fat stored in this area is very much linked to high cholesterol, weight gain and all the problems associated with obesity, as well as increased blood pressure, so it is essential for everyone to take steps to minimise this.”
Legs, back and posture is progressively weakened by our desk-based lives. “Sitting increases the disc pressures around your spine much more than standing does, and is therefore very bad for your posture,” she says.
“Sitting for long periods of time affects the muscles around our joints so if you are sitting down your hip flexes become much more overactive and tight, and synergistically your glutes then become very weak – and that’s when you start to see people picking up injuries when they exercise.
“For instance, we continue to see people suffering from hamstring problems and runner’s knee as a result of regular inactivity.
“With posture, people are often asking me ‘What’s the perfect posture for me when sitting at my desk?’ but there isn’t a generic, ergonomically perfect position for people to sit in. What’s more crucial is that we keep moving – our bodies are meant to be on the move, that’s why we have so many muscles and joints in our body, and they react when we insist on staying still.
“From a posture point of view, if you sat in one position for a long period of time, even if you were told it was the perfect position to sit in for your back muscles, you are still going to have the same problems as those who are sitting normally.
“Therefore you’re better off moving around or fidgeting while you’re seated – shift positions, lean forwards, lean back, constantly shuffle around – just don’t sit still, so you are keeping that posture changing.
“When people complain about fidgeting, this is their body telling them they need to be moving – and this is crucial in reducing key cardiovascular risk factors. We all have it instilled in us to sit up straight and maintain a good posture, but then people become anxious and tense, and this carries onto our shoulders and lower back, whereas actually getting people relaxed and active is far more important.
When people complain about fidgeting, this is their body telling them they need to be moving
Lucie Noble, physiotherapist
“Having a workspace assessment is also very important to ensure employers are providing the right equipment for workers.”
Lucie explains why we experience more backache when we are sitting down: “In terms of muscle and joint use, sitting down is very easy. You do not have to recruit many muscles when you’re sitting down, in comparison to when you’re standing or moving.
“As a result, our bodies become quite lazy, especially around our core, and when these core muscles become ineffective, other muscles have to compensate. This is when we start to feel the pressure on our back muscles as this is the area that takes the strain.”
For Lucie, sleep patterns are also key to protecting muscles and organs. “It’s impractical for people to take naps at work but there is research that suggests that having 10 to 30 minutes in the middle of the day does improve mood, alertness and performance.
“But unless you are already in a relaxed environment and able to fall asleep immediately this just isn’t feasible – most office workers can’t just fall sleep with their heads on their desk.
“Your sleep pattern is also very important in maintaining productivity – as this is when we do all of our body healing. So if your sleep patterns aren’t efficient or consistent, you’re more likely to have muscles aches and pains, caused by general fatigue.”
LUCIE’S TOP TIPS FOR GETTING ACTIVE DURING THE DAY
1. We encourage people to take phone calls standing up, or position their printer at the other end of the office so they have to get up and move about.
2. Being sedentary also affects our circulation, so people are consequently more likely to have poor circulation and poor vascular systems – and this is something that is getting worse. As the working day is no longer nine to five, some people are working for 10 to 12 hours a day, and it is therefore crucial that people remain active during this time and don’t get into bad habits.”
3. Taking a break during the day undoubtedly benefits our ability to be creative – if you have interaction with people and experience external stimulus, you are helping to keep the mind sharp and alert. There is a great deal of research to suggest that taking a break and also drinking caffeine can boost our creativity. For those who work with heavy machinery, work in shifts, or work in potentially dangerous environments, taking regular breaks or napping would be more beneficial than office workers to ensure they aren’t putting themselves in danger.
4. Be disciplined about taking a lunch break, move around every hour, and give yourself triggers to keep active – for instance, if your boss emails you, use this as a trigger for you to get up for a couple of minutes and walk around the office.
5. Put something you need quite regularly on the other side of the office so you are forced to get up to use it. These small habits associated with a sedentary lifestyle can often be enough to reduce your health risk factors and also improve your productivity at work.”