Are you sitting comfortably? Should you be? In the past few years, you have probably read at least one headline claiming that sitting is “the new smoking”. While fundamentally that is not true – leaving aside that it’s a lot easier to live without cigarettes than without seats – it’s fair to say that our love affair with the chair does come with a few downsides.
So, how much sitting is OK, how often should you go for a little walk – and do gym balls do anything? Spoiler: you might want to be standing for this one.
First up: the idea that sitting might be bad isn’t just 21st-century scaremongering. One of the first studies to suggest a link between illness and sitting was conducted in the 1950s, when researchers found that doubledecker bus drivers were twice as likely to have heart attacks as their conductor colleagues. Since then, dozens of studies have found links between sitting and a variety of ailments, with a 2013 analysis of studies concluding: “Higher amounts of daily total sitting time are associated with greater risk of all-cause mortality.”
The problems caused by excessive sitting can be broken into two broad categories: postural problems and cardio-metabolic ones. You can mitigate the first to some extent by doing targeted stretches and mobility work (such as slow, controlled lunges or squats), or just sitting in more joint-friendly positions. The second? Not so much.
“You might be very active, but that doesn’t entirely protect you from being sedentary,” says Kelly Mackintosh, a professor of physical activity and health at Swansea University. “I could go for an hour-long run with the dog every morning and meet the government guidelines for physical activity, but then sit down or do sedentary activities for the rest of the day – which would mean that I’d be classed as sedentary, in terms of risk.”
In terms of postural problems and pain, sitting for prolonged periods can cause your muscles and tendons to stiffen, leading to patellofemoral pain syndrome – also known misleadingly as “runner’s knee” – and lower back pain. One recent study found an association between extended sitting and problems with hip extension, which might lead to other forms of musculoskeletal pain. Long-term workplace sitting is also associated with neck pain.
As for the other stuff? It’s not completely understood why sitting seems to be associated with a range of health conditions, but the most plausible explanation is that it puts your body into standby. When you do it for long enough, your metabolism slows, circulation is constricted and your ability to deal with glucose is compromised. You are effectively switching off some of your body’s largest muscles, with results that can range from increased waist size to diabetes risk.
So, what should you be doing? Sitting on a gym ball doesn’t really help; in fact, it might have negative consequences. One paper that compared balls with office chairs concluded that “prolonged sitting on a stability ball does not greatly alter the manner in which an individual sits, yet it appears to increase the level of discomfort”, while another found associations between sitting on a ball and “spinal shrinkage”.
Addressing your posture is more effective. At work, keeping your screen at eye level and your feet flat on the floor is a good start, allowing you to keep your spine and hips in less painful positions. The easiest way to make a significant difference, though, is to get up every 15, 30 or 60 minutes.
“There are a lot of studies investigating this,” says Mackintosh. “The optimal ‘breakup’ time remains to be identified, but, essentially, even if you have the same overall volume of ‘sitting time’, but break it up with bouts of standing, this is much better for various aspects of your health. Even standing once every 60 minutes helps.”
Best of all, of course, is standing for a while once you are up. “A key question is what employers can do to support positive behaviours and minimise sedentary behaviour,” says Mackintosh. “But if that’s not happening, or you’re working from home, ask yourself: is there something you’re doing that doesn’t require you to sit down? Could you read your emails standing up? Could you do business calls standing, or go for a walk while you think?”
Were you standing comfortably while you read this? Maybe you should have been.