Sitting Pretty

New research shows that sitting for extended periods of time can be more dangerous to your health than smoking. Our experts weigh in on what you can do to offset the risks of a sedentary job.

Are you logging long office hours in front of a computer? You aren’t alone. The average person spends 64 hours a week sitting, and the effects can be deadly.

“Sitting doesn’t affect us right away—just like smoking the first cigarette won’t kill you,” explains Dr. Bryan Hapka at Active Spine & Sport Therapy. “Sitting day in, day out has the most negative effect on our bodies.”

This year, The Annals of Internal Medicine published research showing that people who sit 8-12 hours daily increased their risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and early death by up to 40 percent.

“The moment you sit down, the amount of calories you burn drops to one per minute,” Dr. Hapka says. “After two hours, your good cholesterol drops by 20 percent, and after 24 hours, the effect of insulin on your blood sugar drops.”

Long periods of sitting can also lead to muscle imbalances, inflexibility, neck and back pain, headaches, and blood clots.

“We’re built to move, not sit in front of a computer,” says Dr. Robert Machos, medical director of the executive health program at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. “Look at the people around you hunching over their laptops and cell phones. They look older than they really are.”

And bad news for active couch potatoes and weekend warriors—research shows 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise isn’t sufficient to offset the risks.

“Just being active isn’t enough,” says Dr. Timothy Odom of the Texas Center of Chiropractic Orthopedics. “You have to specifically counteract all the hours you spend sitting down.”

Prolonged sitting puts pressure on the low back, weakens core muscles, and tightens the hip flexors and hamstrings. In fact, athletes with sedentary day jobs are more prone to sports injuries.

“We sit all day and then go to the gym, stretch a minute or two, and go for a run,” explains Dr. Machos. “Now we are seeing all of these injuries—hip pointers, IT band issues, pulled muscles and tendons, and shoulder and ankle injuries.”

What’s the best way to lower your risks? Dr. Hapka suggests we simply “move well and move often,” but our experts shared some specific recommendations:

1. Maintaining optimal posture. “People have their computer screens at odd angles. They’re slouched in their chairs,” says Dr. Odom. “Not being in ergonomic positions can actually cause a lot of problems.”

2. Moving at least 5 minutes every hour. Staying active throughout the day is the best way to stay healthy. Research shows as little as two minutes of walking per hour of sitting may reduce early death by 33 percent.

“In our building, we have a challenge to walk up three flights of stairs four times a day,” says Dr. Machos. “It doesn’t take long, and you feel more productive afterward.”

3. Getting a fitness evaluation. Prevention is key, so listen to the body’s cues.

“When the dash lights come on in your car, hopefully you take care of the problem immediately,” says Dr. Odom. “We have dash lights that come on in our bodies all the time. Any stiffness, tightness, headache, or numbness or tingling in the hands are all signs of a problem.”

Office Hacks to Stay Active

Below are some tips from our doctors to avoid inactivity in the workplace.

  • Set an hourly alarm on your phone. Get some water, use a bathroom on another floor, or hike a flight of stairs.
  • Visit a colleague instead of calling, emailing or sending an IM.
  • Hold standing or walking meetings, and stand up or pace when answering the phone.
  • Get a step counter like a Fitbit to track daily steps.
  • Walk to lunch or for any errands that are one mile or less, or use your lunch break to hit the gym.
  • Commute to work by bike or park further away from your office building.
  • Consider swapping your desk for a standing or treadmill desk if space allows.
  • Make time for an at-your-desk stretching routine.
  • Bring a mat to work for foam rolling or 5-minute yoga breaks, such as sun salutations, planks and warrior poses.
  • Start an office competition to encourage workplace fitness.