Are you sitting down? I'm guessing most of you reading this are. Whether it’s at your desk, on the sofa, on the train, or even in bed, our modern world gears us up to spend much of our day sitting.
Before the Industrial Revolution, life was very physical and labour-intensive – then we invented machines to do much of our manual work. And as the years have passed, machines do more and more, and we do less and less – in a physical sense. Technological advancements also mean that much of today's workforce must sit at a desk to do their jobs. It might sound great that we have freed up our hands (and bodies) to allow our minds to focus elsewhere – but from a health point of view, we’ve not done ourselves any favours.
According to the World Health Organisation a lack of physical activity is the 4th biggest risk factor for mortality globally . Nowadays it’s estimated the average person can sit for around 9-12 hours every day! This lack of movement and generally sedentary lifestyle is affecting our health. Too much sitting has been associated with an increased risk of being overweight, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, early death and certain cancers [2, 3].
And the even scarier thing? Even if you exercise for 2 hours a day, if the rest of your day is spent sitting, your health will still be at risk because of inactivity. While exercise can protect health to a point, even a daily 2 hour run can't compensate for several hours being sat still. The crucial issue is that we must avoid being sedentary for long periods.
OK, that answers 'what's the big deal', but how about the 'why'? Why does sitting down increase our risk of various diseases? The NHS state that sitting too long can affect our metabolic rate. This then impacts on how well we regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Our blood vessels require muscle contraction to help the flow of blood back to the heart – and if we sit still, the lack of muscle contraction can put pressure on the vascular system and lead to complications.
The good news is, even small changes can make a huge difference to your health and help reduce the risks associated with too much sitting. Start by being more conscious of how often you're sitting in your daily life. An awareness of the problem is the first step to reducing your risk of negative health consequences in the long term.
It's easy to get so focused on your work you forget to move for hours on end – but breaking this habit could add years to your life. Set a reminder on your phone or activity tracker to prompt you to get up every 30-60 minutes. Use this to simply step away from your desk and walk around the office, do a few squats or march on the step for 1 minute. Even a little movement will help to activate your muscles and get your blood flowing.
It may seem like you're breaking your concentration flow quite frequently, but you are actually doing yourself a favour by oxygenating your blood flow and giving your brain a boost! Taking a minute to energise yourself can improve your concentration on your task and increase your productivity.
How many catch up meetings do you have throughout a week? Could some of these be done on the move? If you just need a conversation with a colleague, why not pop outside and walk while you talk? Use the notes section on your phone to prep any pointers, or jot down your actions. Or if that's not feasible because there are a group of people on a video call, try taking part standing up, as long as your head and shoulders are in view, no one will know! Same goes for in-person meetings – could you persuade your colleagues to experience the health benefits of a standing meeting? My bet is it will be a shorter, more focussed session!
If you can accommodate it in your workspace, consider investing in a stand up desk or even asking your employer to arrange one for you. This will allow you to alternate between sitting and standing periods throughout the day. Anything to break up 8 hours of sitting!
Lunch break walks should be non-negotiable for everyone. It's one thing sitting when you're writing an email or report – but spending an hour scrolling through social media when you get a break from your desk should be an absolute no-no. Take every opportunity you can to get outdoors for some fresh air, soak up the sunshine (vitamin D boost!), and clock up your steps. Trust me, you'll feel so much better and get a productivity boost for the afternoon. And guess what, you can still scroll through The Gram while you're walking. Two birds, one stone.
If you have the option, take an active commute whenever possible. Cycle or walk to work and avoid more sitting while you drive. The added bonus is that you'll be doing your bit to help the environment. This is something I plan to start from next week – cycling to work on office days, as I've realised it'll only take me 5 minutes longer than driving, I’ll save on petrol, plus I'll be upping my activity each day. Win-win.
If you do catch a train, bus or tube, try to stand rather than sit if you can. You've got all day to sit when you arrive at work!
Think about the tasks you can do on the move while working. Do you have an article to read? Load it up on your phone and walk around while you read it (probably safer indoors than navigating busy pavements!). Have a webinar to watch/listen to? Get up from your desk, stick in your headphones and head outdoors. Not everything has to be done sitting still. It's a hard habit to break, so think outside the box.
When you get home, try to take the opportunity to stay on your feet as much as you can. Cooking a meal from scratch can really help with this, as you’ll spend much more time prepping and cooking than popping a ready meal in the oven. Cooking from scratch also means you control what goes into your meal, so you can keep it healthy with less oil and salt, and more veggies and pulses – better for you in more ways than one!
Aside from generally trying to sit for shorter periods throughout the day, of course regular exercise where we get our heart rate up is also vital. Ensure you're getting your government-recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week as a minimum – but aim for more if you can or if weight loss is your goal.
Our sitting down lifestyle is putting us at risk of various illnesses and early death, and we need to start doing something about it. Try to be very conscious of the time you spend sitting, and get up and move more throughout the day. You don't need to run a marathon, just stand up and walk a little regularly throughout the day.
Emma White (Certified Personal Trainer) has always loved fitness. She's passionate about the many benefits of regular exercise, particularly the positive impact on mental health and overall quality of life, as well as how it provides the key to successful weight management.