A few years ago, family friends invited us over to their place for lunch. The wife is Slovak and the husband is Egyptian, and the smell of falafel frying, fava bean soup simmering, and cumin with tomatoes was enough to make my mouth water long before lunch was ready. I was a little surprised that when we went to eat, they laid out a tablecloth on the living room floor and we all sat down on the floor.
This is a guest post from Naomi Huzovicova of Almost Bananas.
I shouldn’t have been that surprised, seeing as I had sat on the floor to eat before. My father is from Japan, and on trips to visit family we usually sat on the floor around a low table for meals. My mother would marvel at how long the women could kneel and then gracefully rise up to stand, while we lasted a few minutes before tingly legs forced us to sit cross-legged.
Sitting, whether to eat, at work, at school, or for entertainment, is increasingly our default position throughout the day. And it’s killing us.
How Sitting is Bad for You
Such a statement sounds rather alarmist, but when one starts reviewing the studies on the effects of sitting for long periods of time, it doesn’t seem so hyped up.
Take, for example, this graph from a Canadian study that followed 17,013 people for 12 years:
How does prolonged sitting effect us? Sedentary behaviour is linked to:
- significantly higher incidents of cardiovascular disease
- significantly higher association with metabolic syndrome (obesity, prediabetes leading to diabetes, high cholesterol levels)
- suppression of lipase activity (enzyme that breaks down fat for use by body)
- impedes with the body’s ability to deal with glucose (leading to diabetes)
- increases back pain
Now, we’ve been told that being active is healthy and to get our 30 minutes of exercise a day, but a burst of activity, no matter how intense, has little to no bearing on the harmful effects of sitting for a long time. That means that if you sit all day at work and then go for a run or do some Crossfit, you are still subject to the ill effects of sitting.
Many of the studies found a relation between sitting and some chronic health problems, but finding out why is a little more difficult.
Increased back pain due to sitting for long periods of time seems to have a connection. Much of our sitting time is spent slouching in a C position – head and shoulders sticking forward and down and lower back curled under. The spine then is forced to bear pressure and weight in ways that it was never meant to. Discs get pinched, muscles tense into hard balls, and pain results. As well, when we sit we often are not using our core muscles; these muscles weaken from lack of use, and then are not able to support the lower back.
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Another issue with the physical position of sitting is that it interrupts blood flow and circulation. As the biomechanist Katy Bowman describes, blood flows through the arteries like a ball in a hallway. When the hallway turns, the ball bumps into the wall. The same thing happens when we sit – we are creating kinks and turns in the arterial ‘hallways’ and the blood cells are bumping into the arterial walls, causing damage. Our body sends cholesterol to repair the damage, which accumulates as plaque, and voila, cardiovascular disease. As well, all that twisting and turning slows down blood circulation. (Side note: if you are interested in the mechanics of the body and physical health, I highly recommend Katy Bowman’s blog. She’s funny, oh so real, and imparts fascinating information.)
One more factor worth mentioning is calories. Now, I’m not a counter of calories, but comparing the amount of calories burned (or not burned) indicates a few issues. Simply standing burns roughly 50 calories more per hour than sitting, indicating how much less we use our body in order to sit. And think of how much we sit: eat breakfast, commute to work or school, at work or school, to eat lunch, commute home, eat supper, watch TV or be on the computer. If we traded three hours a day of standing (the next least calorie burning activity) for sitting during the weekday, it would work out to be the caloric equivalent of 10 marathons. Without actually running.
How to Decrease Time Spent Sitting?
Most of the articles online talk about sitting/standing at work, which, of course, takes up most of our day. But by looking into how other non-sitting cultures function, we can glean clues of how to make our movements more dynamic in all that we do.
Because that is the key – dynamic. All the studies show how prolonged sitting in one position is bad for you. Standing in one position for hours at a time is also bad for you. Prolonged standing has been associated with varicose veins and is rather tiring, especially on the feet.
The trick is to find ways to switch it up, even in little ways. Try sitting on the floor. Your bum will get sore, so you shift, and that shifting movement triggers a myriad of muscles contractions in order to move. Then maybe you kneel, and your legs get sore, so you squat…etc.
As I already wrote, many cultures do not sit at the table to eat. You can eat a low coffee table (about 14 inches high or so) while kneeling, sitting on a cushion, or even squatting. We don’t have a coffee table, so I often put a folded sheet on the living room rug to eat. It’s like an indoor picnic. Somehow, eating without chairs takes much less room. We do have small children, so for soup we sit at the table. I’d like to cut the dining table down, but haven’t yet taken the plunge. If you sit on the floor to eat, small children (at least my children) will have a tendency to be rather active, shifting, rolling, even laying down. You can try to stop them, or you can call it dynamic movement.
Sitting on the toilet makes elimination longer, more difficult, and causes pressure that creates hemorrhoids. In Japan many toilets, especially public ones, are in the ground, kind of like a horizontal urinal that you squat over. When traveling in France, a bathroom off the highway had the same kind of toilet and it was a relief not to have to touch anything. When taking Japanese visitors hiking, we were mystified by the shoe prints surrounding the hole in the outhouse, until we realized that they didn’t know to sit on the bench but were squatting.
Seeing as you probably don’t have access to an in-floor squatting toilet, there are special squatting stools available for purchase as well as diy plans. It’s on the top of my list of things to make! For now, we have a long, tall stool that works well enough.
Take it to the floor. Playing with children, watching TV, even hand work like knitting can be done sitting on a cushion or squatting. Being on the floor is much easier with a large thick rug, it’s both warmer in the winter and more inviting than a hard floor.
When we were at the friends’ house for lunch, she showed me pictures from Egypt. One photo was of his family sitting on the floor in the living room with a couch and big armchairs behind them. “They bought a couch for when visitors come,” she explained, “but they aren’t used to using it so they still sit on the floor.” Anecdotally, the Slovak wife suffered from lower back pain for years until she moved to Egypt, when she had to rise from and get down on the floor multiple times a day.
We cut down a small table to 14 inches, and that is now our drawing/homework/craft station. Which, of course, could always be done on the floor as well.
This is a big one. This is where office workers spend the majority of their day, where moms connect online, dads read the news, and kids play games (or want to, at least). There are treadmill work stations, so you can work and work out at the same time. There are also standing stations, so that you are standing as you work. I can’t attest to any system, as I haven’t tried them. If you stand, however, don’t just stand – shift your weight, stretch your calf muscles on a rolled up towel, check if you have proper alignment.
What I do is move around my laptop. Sometimes it’s on a taller kitchen counter, so that I’m standing. Sometimes I put it on a chair/couch/little table and squat, then stand and bend over, then kneel, etc. It’s not as fancy as a height controllable desk, but it is a whole lot cheaper. If you do sit to be at the computer at desk height, try an exercise ball or a stool without a back.
When sitting for a prolonged period of time, no matter how ergonomic your chair or ball is, you need to get up every hour and move around. Walk, stretch, jiggle, dance, any movement will do.
This doesn’t mean you have an empty house. What is means is that there are no sitting apparatuses around. Katy Bowman graciously takes us through her furniture free house tour. Most of my inhibitions of doing the same involve worrying about how visitors are going to cope without a couch.
It’s little things done frequently throughout the day:
- Meet up with friends for a walk, instead of over coffee. Or drink coffee as you walk.
- Catch up on phone calls while walking.
- Take the stairs.
- Park at the far end of the parking lot.
- Walk or bike everywhere you can, for errands, visiting friends, going to school, etc. When I was visiting my sister in Holland I was pleasantly surprised at how much and how far people rode bikes every day. My sister ferried her sons to school 30 min one way, five days a week, rain or shine, and that was normal. Those Dutch mamas have killer strong legs pushing kids and groceries around in bakfiets.
- Stand when you can in public transport. Get off a stop or two early and walk the rest of the way.
- Walk around the block on your lunch break.
- Join the kids on the monkey bars at the playground and give extra underducks.
- Break up long traveling trips with frequent stops for fresh air and movement.
- Record your professor’s lecture and listen to it while walking to study.
- Don’t walk like a normal person in a straight line, but like a kid – squat to examine a ladybug, jump over a rock, go up and down the side of the ditch.
In a Nutshell
We know that prolonged sitting is detrimental to our health but we also know that sitting is how the majority of us spend our day. The risks associated with sitting can’t be undone by an hour’s worth of sweaty exercise. The key is to find ways to adjust our environment to be conducive to movement all day, even if it’s just remembering to take a walking break or stretch muscles.
Are you surprised at the health effects of sitting? What can you do to sit less and move more in your day?
If you want even more info on posture and its impact on your health, check out this interview with physical therapist and bone health expert Margie Bissinger.
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Fit2B Studio from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase. See my full disclosure statement here.