Surely, an alien visitor from outer space would be dumb-founded by modern urban human life, and our love-hate relationship with physical activity and exertion. After nearly 6 million years of hunter-gatherer existence, we are now confined to climate-controlled rooms, counteracting the effects of gravity by slouching on comfortable chairs, staring at glowing screens, traveling back and forth to various locations in motorized vehicles, being whisked up and down by escalators and elevators, and even soaring across continents in warm flying boxes.

This said inter-planetary visitor would be confused at the efforts we humans take to spend our ‘free time’ running outside in all kinds of inclement weather for no real reason, and even weirder, to be shelling out good amounts of hard-earned money to a place called the “gym” to go lift heavy objects and to sweat it out on revolving/running rubber conveyor belts.

Our alien will shake its head when we explain that an estimated 9% of the global population is afflicted by the ‘globesity’ pandemic caused by inactivity, resulting in premature mortality. When we talk about the virtues of exercise – a mere 150 minutes weekly moderate to vigorous physical activity, and its vital contribution to mental and physical health, it may wonder why the very people that are talking about this (including your blogger) is doing so from the confines of a chair. 😊

As we get wedded and bonded with our sofas, desks, chairs, e-devices and computers, these are the very conveniences that are portending morbidity and mortality. In fact, recent research shows that the very physicians that treat our ills (General Practitioners being the most sedentary breed of doctors), are themselves succumbing to inactivity by spending almost their entire workday sitting.

Sedentary activities include the time spent sitting in an automotive on a long commute, sitting at a desk at work, sitting on the couch after work, watching television, reading, and playing games or surfing the internet. And the average American adults spends an impressive 10-12 hours sitting each day in these ways, with surveys of other countries around the world pointing to similar trends.

 

How does sitting specifically affect health?

 

Sitting is right behind smoking in contributing to shortening your lifespan, even ahead of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Prolonged sitting is also associated with many other health issues, such as obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and several types of cancer. In addition, it affects the structure of the body, negatively impacting the spine, neck and hips.

There’s a direct relationship between time spent sitting and your risk of early mortality of any cause, researchers said, based on a study of nearly 8,000 adults. As your total sitting time increases, so does your risk of an early death.

Persons with uninterrupted sedentary bouts of 30 minutes or more had the highest risk for death, if total sedentary time also exceeded 12.5 hours per day.

 

Aging means more sitting. As we get older, our physical and mental function declines, we become more and more sedentary we become less active.

Maybe as important to keep in mind is that there is research that shows that even if you exercise regularly outside of the 8-10 hours of sitting you may be doing for work, it does not undo the ill effects of prolonged uninterrupted sitting!

Yes, sitting too long can kill you, even if you exercise

The positive news: People who sat for less than 30 minutes at a time had the lowest risk of early death.

So, if sitting is the new smoking, how do we quit? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Get a Step Counter – a Fitbit (or a cheaper version) that measures your footsteps daily will help you get up and move.
  2. Set an Alarm – most sitting is unconscious. A reminder alarm will get you moving.
  3. Stay Hydrated – drinking enough water throughout the day will allow you to get up from your chair to take bathroom breaks.
  4. Eat Elsewhere – don’t eat at your desk. Go outside when the weather is good, or go to the office cafeteria to eat your lunch, even if you are brown bagging it.
  5. Take a Walking Meeting – instead of meeting in a stuffy room, grab a cup of coffee and walk in your office campus with your colleague.
  6. Pace – when I am on a phone call, unless I need to be at my laptop, I walk up and down the hallway while talking.
  7. Visit your Colleagues – don’t just instant message or email one another for trivial stuff! Walk over to their office – you will get lot of work done this way too!
  8. Hit the Office Gym – if the weather is lousy, take that much needed walk in the gym.
  9. Consider a Walking or Standing Desk – these are highly popular in the workplace, as are exercise balls. One of the biggest drawbacks is that standing still for an extended period of time is uncomfortable and comes with its own set of problems like foot pain and varicose veins, so consider a treadmill desk. You can look at several choices here.
  10. Shun your Enemies – treat elevators, escalators and moving walkways as the enemy. Take the stairs, instead.
  11. Keep Your Phone Far – this way, when there is a message or a call, it forces you to walk over to answer your phone.
  12. Ditch the Car – use public transportation to move around, if this is available and convenient in your city. Instead of driving, walk or bike to your grocery store, if you need just a couple of things.
  13. Yoga Asanas – if you can’t leave your work desk for too long to take a walk, simply stand up and stretch! You can try an simple sequence of Mountain Pose, Chair Pose, Pyramid Pose, and Tree Pose.

Clearly the bottom line is that we need to find sustainable way of integrating physical activity throughout the working day, rather than viewing exercises purely as an extra-curricular activity. In Japan communal exercises at work, in the name of health and productivity, have been the norm for decades. An increasing number of employers in the West now recognize the importance of providing facilities for employees to exercise at work, citing additional benefits such as reduced employee stress and absenteeism, and increased productivity.

It is likely that future generations will look back at our sedentary working practices with the same incredulity that we now regard the idea of a smoke-filled office or airplane. With physical inactivity, stress, and burnout very real problems in general practice, it is time to prioritize and research activities that enhance, rather than deplete, our health and well-being at work.

Oops, there’s my timer telling me I’ve been sitting for 30 minutes! Time for me to get up and move for two minutes before getting back to work.

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