Sitting at your desk is slowly killing you

Being sedentary is the new smoking

Woman at desk sitting with bad posture

(Science Photo Library/Getty)

Technology has changed the way we work so much so that we now spend more time sitting in front of computer and video screens than ever before. And sitting too much is killing us. Almost as much as smoking in fact. Smoking and physical activity rank number one and two in the world as the top risk factors for non-communicable diseases (and inactivity is responsible for 9% of premature deaths, according to a study published in The Lancet). In fact, smoking just edges out inactivity, blamed for 5.3 million deaths per year versus 5 million deaths per year due to inactivity. (Just don’t use those numbers as an opportunity to rationalize stepping out of the office for a smoke.)

We need to realize what sitting around all the time is doing to us—and getting people to move more and exercise needs to become a public health priority. Consider how long it took for everyone to wake up to the fact that smoking is deadly: we need to do the same for sedentarism (sometimes called ‘couch potato syndrome’ or ‘sitting disease’).

Sedentary is the new smoking

Another study published in Jama Internal Medicine showed that even if you exercise regularly, sitting for too long could still increase risk of premature death. The study found that adults who sat for 11 hours or more per day had a 40% increased risk of dying in the next three years than those who sat for less than four hours a day. Even after taking physical activity, weight and health status into account, researchers found that this scary association still held true. So avoid prolonged sitting—it can trigger unhealthy metabolic changes that can lead to chronic illness.

Being too sedentary increases your risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, kidney stones and various cancers. Yes, sitting around on your butt might just lead to colon cancer. But ask anyone who has suffered from it, and you’ll quickly learn it’s no laughing matter. Mood disorders like depression are linked to sitting too long as well. And while you might think being chained to your desk makes you more productive, you’re wrong. Just like your body needs exercise to keep it in shape, so does your brain. Getting in 30 minutes of exercise a day helps keep you mentally sharp. It’s been proven to improve cognitive function. I recommend you watch my one-minute video on The Brain and Exercise. You’re already in front of the computer, what’s one minute more going to hurt?

Well, a lot, actually. Maybe you can watch the video while standing up and stretching at your desk.

Here are a few other ways that you can get up and moving more at work.

  • Walk while taking business calls (that’s something CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta told me he does on a regular basis).
  • Spend at least half of your lunch break walking.
  • Skip the elevator and take the stairs (if you’re groaning about doing this in heels, keep a pair of running shoes at your desk)
  • Tell others in your office how deadly “sitting disease” can be: some offices are encouraging employees to take short stretch breaks throughout the day (not only does it make you less sedentary, it also makes you at less risk for repetitive strain injuries)
  • Pick a parking spot further away from your office.
  • Talk to your employee wellness group about subsidizing in-office exercise programs.

Sit less or be witless

Sitting is so much a part of our day we may not even realize how inactive we’ve become. A typical day for many is to drive or take transit to the office, plunk down at the desk and maybe walk to a few meetings—where you sit some more—and then you’re back sitting for the commute home, sitting down to dinner and then maybe plunking down again—this time for some TV on the couch before bed. So ask yourself, are you getting 30 minutes of moderate exercise in every day? If you need help keeping track, there are plenty of apps for your smartphone or wearable devices that capture every step you take. I hope you’re standing at attention now because spending too much time in your office chair (no matter how comfy or ergonomic) is stealing precious time from your life.

Elaine Chin, MD, MBA
Founder, Executive Health Centre

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