As someone who has earned a living as a writer over the past 12 years, I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk.
So much so, I sometimes wonder if I’ll need to be cremated in a chair-shaped coffin!
Humans aren’t designed for sitting around.
Nevertheless, we’ve become experts at sitting down – and it has come at a price.
Global studies suggest that we spend, on average, around seven hours each day sitting on chairs, which can dramatically affect our physical health.
The organisation JustStand cites Dr James Levine – a leading world authority on obesity – as saying:
“Today, our bodies are breaking down from obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, depression, and the cascade of health ills and everyday malaise that come from what scientists have named ‘sitting disease’.”
The American Medical Association advises that sitting for extended periods of time can be detrimental to our health, and encourages organisations to provide employees opportunities to move around at regular intervals.
While there is cause for concern over how sedentary our lives have become, it’s important to note that sitting down in itself isn’t the problem.
Witold Rybczynski – architect and author of Now I Sit Me Down – said in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic that he believes the standing desk and other initiatives will come and go as fads.
Today’s health warnings, he adds, are about breaking up long periods of sitting with moving around, rather than the practice of sitting in chairs.
Although the average amount of sitting time worldwide is said to be around seven hours, some studies have pointed to countries such as America, where the average office worker can sit for more than 10 hours each day.
As Dr Levine states in an article for Scientific American, “Sitting for long periods is bad because the human body was not designed to be idle.
I have worked in obesity research for several decades, and my laboratory has studied the effect of sedentary lifestyles at the molecular level all the way up to office design.”
“Lack of movement slows metabolism, reducing the amount of food that is converted to energy and thus promoting fat accumulation, obesity, and the litany of ills – heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and more – that come with being overweight. Sitting is bad for lean people, too.”
“For instance, sitting in your chair after a meal leads to high blood sugar spikes, whereas getting up after you eat can cut those spikes in half.”
So how can we combat the negative effects that can arise from sitting at our desks for lengthy periods?
Here are five steps to help get your body moving, even during the busiest days at the office:
Take small, regular breaks to stretch
If you’ve been sitting at your desk for an hour, take a five-minute break to get up and move around.
Whether it be taking a trip to the water cooler, or walking to another department to speak to a colleague, regular bouts of moving around will help your circulation and get those tired muscles active.
Schedule a daily 30-minute physical activity
Even if it’s simply taking a walk, taking part in some kind of physical exercise each day can make a big difference in helping to mitigate the effects of sitting.
If you think you don’t have time for 30 minutes’ worth of daily exercise, it might be worth checking how much time is spent scrolling through social media or binge-watching a favourite television show.
Set a reminder to stand up and move around
Taking micro-breaks on the hour can be difficult to remember, especially if you’re immersed in a particular task at the time.
We can be terrible at trying to form good habits, which is why physiotherapists have so many repeat clients.
To help with this, set an alarm or calendar reminder to get you up and moving.
If you don’t have time to actually get up and move around, the simple act of standing up and stretching your legs and back can be beneficial.
Make use of standing desks if your organisation provides them
It’s unrealistic to think that we should spend all of our time standing up – our ancestors might have mostly been on their feet, but they didn’t have 100 emails to sift through.
However, making use of available standing desks even for part of each day (or alternating days) can help to reduce back pain, and might also help reduce the risk of heart disease.
A 1953 study was the first to propose that standing was preferable to sitting, finding that bus conductors who stood all day had half the risk of heart disease-related deaths versus their colleagues in the driver’s seat.
Watch your screen height
The top of your computer screen should be at eye-level, whether you’re sitting or standing.
Ideally, you shouldn’t be looking down any lower than 10 degrees to see the screen.
If you look much lower, it could lead to back and neck pain.
If you’re working from a laptop, mounting it on a box and using an external keyboard and mouse can raise the monitor to a healthier height.