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Your Chair is Your Enemy

May 11, 2010

Are you sitting down? On average, people sit 8.9 hours a day. Even if you exercise vigorously, sitting for long periods remains bad for your health, according to recent research. Beware of your chair.

Most of us spend much of our workdays sitting. We do it at our desk. In meetings. For lunch. While making phone calls. We do it while doing just about anything that we do during a regular workday.

"The Digital Revolution means sitting with a devout intensity that has never been equaled by sitters before. It means staring rigidly into a single screen and moving your fingers up and down. It means a generation, hunched forward tensely, groping for cybernetic interaction, typing and clicking," Wired reported over a decade ago. "Now everything's right in front of you, and you perch there staring and clicking for years on end."

On average, we sit 8.9 hours a day, according to BusinessWeek. That is why a recent New York Times commentary is so upsetting.

"Your chair is your enemy," Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, wrote for the Times' Opinionator blog. "It doesn't matter if you go running every morning, or you're a regular at the gym. If you spend most of the rest of the day sitting [...] you are putting yourself at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers and an early death."

It's long been known that injuries resulting from sitting for long periods are a serious occupational health and safety problem. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, prolonged sitting:

  • Reduces body movement, making muscles more likely to pull, cramp or strain when stretched suddenly;
  • Causes fatigue in the back and neck muscles by slowing the blood supply while putting high tension on the spine, especially in the lower back or neck; and
  • Causes a steady compression on the spinal discs that hinders their nutrition and can contribute to their premature degeneration.

"The dire concern for the future may rest with growing numbers of people unaware of the potential insidious dangers of sitting too much," Marc Hamilton of the University of Missouri-Columbia and others wrote in a 2007 study published in the journal Diabetes.

"People need to understand that the qualitative mechanisms of sitting are completely different from walking or exercising," Hamilton recently told BusinessWeek. "Sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little. They do completely different things to the body."

There are two reasons that sitting all day is so bad for your health. For one, it is extremely "passive," which means your body burns very few calories while you sit. Even standing in place burns more calories, considering the work your leg muscles do.

Moreover, evidence seems to indicate that "when you spend long periods sitting, your body actually does things that are bad for you."

Hamilton and his team found that when people sit for long periods of time, the enzymes responsible for burning fat actually shut down. After prolonged sitting, your body stops producing lipoprotein lipase, which is important for processing fats, and your metabolism slows down to match the inactivity. Excessive sitting can also lower HDL ("good" cholesterol), contributing to a slower metabolism as well.

"It is unclear exactly how these processes work," Financial Times recently reported, but "it seems that prolonged sitting greatly reduces the activity of the beneficial enzyme lipoprotein lipase. When that happens, risk of heart disease rises."

Even if you exercise later in the day, that won't necessarily undo the damage done by sitting.

If the dangers of sitting go beyond lack of exercise, what's the solution?

Judson suggests replacing a typical desk with a stand-up desk, and even equipping it with a slow treadmill, or replacing your office chair with a therapy/exercise ball.

Although these may be sound recommendations, how many employees today can go to their boss with these proposals and actually be taken seriously?

"The solution seems to be less sitting and more moving," James A. Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, says. "Simply by standing, you burn three times as many calories as you do sitting. Muscle contractions, including the ones required for standing, seem to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars."

Look beyond the furniture to consider how you are actually using your body when you sit on it, and take breaks from your tasks to get up and move regularly, doing subtle stretches at your workstation.


The Hot Seat

by Bruce Sterling

Wired, July 2000

Your Office Chair is Killing You

by Adrianne Cohen

BusinessWeek, April 29, 2010

Stand Up While You Read This!

Opinionator (The New York Times), Feb. 23, 2010

Working in a Sitting Position

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Nov. 20, 2009 (last confirmed as current)

Role of Low Energy Expenditure and Sitting in Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, Type 2 Diabetes, and Cardiovascular Disease

by Marc T. Hamilton, Deborah G. Hamilton and Theodore W. Zderic

Diabetes, November 2007

Stand Up to the Dangers of Sitting Down

by Simon Kuper

Financial Times, Jan. 22, 2010

The Stand Up Desk - One Year Later

by Keith Meyer

Evolving Excellence, Sept. 27, 2009

Take Up Thy Desk and Walk

by Tara Weiss, Oct. 25, 2007

Exercise Balls as Office Furniture

by Ira Dreyfuss

The Associated Press, Nov. 7, 2003

Question: Can Too Much Sitting Hurt My Health?

by James A. Levine, May 7, 2010

Good Working Position

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, April 23, 2008 (last updated)

Simple Workday Stretches

by Sue Shekut

Working Well Resources, April 13, 2010