Is ‘sitting the new smoking?' How to quit the sedentary lifestyle
Quit the sit with some help from an expert
“Muscles are healthiest when used, so it is no surprise that staying seated for eight or nine hours a day has negative repercussions.”
Modern life has resulted in many of us adapting to a sedentary lifestyle. If you are desk-bound at work and sit on your journey to and from it, you likely fall into this category.
Sitting, which has been dubbed “the new smoking”, comes with its own risks. It increases load on the spine and discs resulting in slouching, or the loss in the natural curve of the spine. Over time this can cause changes in muscle length and affect the strength and performance of the postural muscles in the spine and shoulders. In turn, this can result in pain and predisposition to injury. Muscles are healthiest when used, so it is no surprise that staying seated for eight or nine hours a day has negative repercussions.
As a chartered physiotherapist, I see many people with postural-related neck and back pain, namely aches and pains that can develop related to sitting, whether it be at a desk or driving. Many of these physical problems can be treated with physiotherapy to relieve the pain in the short-term.
The long-term solution includes advice on correcting posture and finding a solution for sitting or standing in a more efficient way that reduces load on the spine and prevents reoccurrence.
For those who sit at a desk and experience (or would simply like to prevent) neck and back pain, I recommend the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, stand up and focus on a point 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Even this short break will allow your spine to experience some relief and reduced load. It will also allow the small muscles of your eyes to rest, as well as the muscles around your shoulders and neck.
Circling your shoulders, turning your head gently from side to side, and reaching both arms up overhead are other good ways to reduce the negative effects of sitting. Standing desks are also becoming common in the workplace, and something I recommend quite regularly for clients.
Health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle include increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, breast and colon cancer, and depression. The evidence is strong that these risks are greatly reduced by engaging in an active lifestyle.
Active individuals are less likely to have a hip or spinal fracture, and they exhibit higher levels of cardiovascular and muscular fitness. They are also more likely to achieve weight maintenance and have a healthier body mass and composition than sedentary individuals.
Exercising and standing can help reverse the negative effects associated with sitting. The World Health Organisation recommends that 18- to 64-year-olds do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity every week. Alternatively, they can opt for at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.
Activity can be easily integrated into daily routines. It should be performed in bouts of at least 10 minutes and can include transportation, occupational, housework or sports activities.
Aileen Flynn is clinical specialist physiotherapist in musculoskeletal care at the the Beacon Hospital, Sandyford, Dublin. She is also a triathlete.