“Sitting is the new smoking”—this is the latest catch phrase surrounding health. Yes, perhaps it’s a bit alarmist, but the notion holds true. Sitting for extended periods can be detrimental to your health. And alas, many of us spend most of the day sitting.
One study reveals more than a quarter of American adults sit for over eight hours a day. This sitting epidemic has one major culprit: the desk job. If you work a nine-to-five in the office, that’s eight hours in a chair right there. Not to mention time spent relaxing at home.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Learn the health risks of sitting at a desk all day and what you can do to stay healthy while working your desk job.
Desk Stress and Your Body: Health Effects of a Sedentary Lifestyle
Let’s get one thing out of the way: sitting in moderation isn’t inherently bad for you. But grabbing a chair for excessive periods of time does come with side effects. The science is pretty straightforward—when you sit for prolonged intervals your body feels it:
- Blood flow: While you’re sitting, your blood circulates at a slower rate than when you’re standing. As blood flow slows, it can be easier for fatty acids to build up in your arteries—a common precursor to heart disease.
- Fat usage: Your body breaks down fats in your diet one of two ways—by processing it or storing it. Sitting has been shown to slow the body’s production of lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that helps break down fats. This means less fat is processed and it’s instead being stored in your body.
- Insulin resistance: When you’re sitting, your body experiences “muscle passivity.” Basically, you’re not actively using most of your muscles. This state could lead to increased insulin resistance, which may cause elevated blood sugar levels.
Scientists are still exploring the full impact these bodily changes can have on your health, but some of the repercussions are clear. Excessive sitting has the potential to increase your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, blood clots, and obesity.
But there is good news! If you spend a lot of your day sitting, there’s plenty you can do to combat these health woes.
Staying Active at the Desk: Stretching Your In-Office Exercise Options
As more and more points to the detrimental effects of sitting, office norms are changing. For those with desk jobs, this means sitting for eight hours straight isn’t your only option. So what can you do instead? Let’s get into it:
- Stand up to work: It seems too good to be true, but one of the best ways to avoid the health impacts of sitting is, well, to not sit. Enter the standing desk. Though they come in a variety of forms, each is designed to elevate the surface of your desk to let you stand instead of sit. While standing only burns marginally more calories than sitting, it can help you avoid the other health risks above. And what’s more, some studies suggest that standing desks can help boost productivity.
- Break away: If possible, take a break at least once every hour. It doesn’t have to—and probably shouldn’t—be a long break. Just enjoy three to five minutes away from your desk to use the restroom, make a cup of coffee, grab a snack, etc. Time spent standing or, even better, walking can work wonders for your health and productivity.
- Try a new desk accessory: Get creative with your at-work exercise by placing a small stationary bike, or even a treadmill, under your desk. Both are great options to stay active while working, helping you keep the blood flowing throughout the day. And the best part? You don’t even need to break a sweat to see the benefits.
- Suggest a walk-and-talk: The business week can be chock full of meetings—most taken sitting down. A walking meeting is a great alternative to the traditional conference room meetup. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a meeting while trekking through the office, around the block, anywhere but sitting at a table. Of course, not every meeting can be held this way, but it is a terrific option for team brainstorming sessions and one-on-one conversations.
- Step it up: If you’ve gotten in the habit of using the elevator, it’s time to mix it up. Stairs are a simple and easy way to get your blood pumping at work. Climbing the stairs is also a heart-healthy way to spend one of your mini breaks throughout the day.
- Stretch your possibilities: Stop what you’re doing. Stand up, place one hand on your elbow, and pull your arm across your chest. Hold for 30 seconds. Reverse this stretch on the other side. Ahhh…doesn’t that feel good? Now turn around, place one foot on the seat of your chair, and engage your core as you slowly lean forward to stretch the back of your supporting leg. Switch sides. Fitting a quick stretch into your workday is as easy as that.
Make Your Commute Count
If you commute to work, you likely know firsthand how much sitting it can add to your day. Waiting in traffic, slumped on the bus, seated on the train—you get the idea. But it’s also one part of your workday that can turn physical. If you live cycling distance from the office, an early morning bike ride into work is a perfect way to start the day. And getting off the bus a few stops early lets you squeeze a brisk walk into an otherwise packed day.
Losing the car may seem like a drastic change to make, but give it a shot—after skipping traffic for a few days, you may never to go back to the auto commute!
Exercise After Work: Counteracting the Effects of Sitting
At the end of the day, you’re at work to work. Not all offices are open to the idea of a walking meeting. And, let’s face it, an under-the-desk stationary bike might not be in your future.
If this is your situation, don’t worry—a healthy lifestyle while working a desk job is still doable. It just takes a little after work motivation.
A day of sitting at a desk staring at a screen is exhausting. Plopping down on the couch and relaxing after work can be tempting. The problem is this adds even more sitting to your day. To stave off the negative health impacts of prolonged sitting, it’s crucial to mix some form of physical activity into your day.
This doesn’t mean hitting the gym for two hours every evening or going for a five-mile run (if that’s your thing, kudos to you). A 30-minute walk after dinner is enough to get the blood flowing. And if you don’t want to leave the house, home exercises can achieve the same benefit.
The Bottom Line
So, is sitting the new smoking? Not exactly. Sitting in moderation is a pervasive part of life, but too much of it for too long can have negative health consequences. Unlike smoking, sitting is an easy habit to break by simply finding creative ways to get up and get moving. It’s true, whether you like it or not, you’re going to spend some of each day seated. And that’s ok—you now have plenty of ideas to stay healthy, even with a desk job.