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What is Sitting Really Doing to Me?

If you’ve been paying attention to health in the news over the last few years, you’ve probably seen a headline or two with something along the lines of “Sitting is the New Smoking”. While this is very clearly an attention-grabbing headline, most of the articles and stories still leave room for questions, with the main one being, “Why is sitting really that bad for me?” How can it be that something so intertwined to nearly everything we do in today’s society can be killing us? We grow up sitting in school, then we grow up and sit at our jobs, while we eat, when we’re at a movie or show, and when we drive to and from all these places. It truly is impressive how much we as a human population sit nowadays. And it’s not just an adult problem anymore, a recent study found that teens are now just as sedentary as 60 year olds. In the past few years, study after study have found correlations between higher amounts of time spent sitting and obesity, type II diabetes, and many other chronic, preventable diseases.

We probably all had a relative that told us to “Sit up straight!” and “Stop slouching!” at the dinner table, but clearly we’re now finding out that sitting does more than just promote bad posture and musculoskeletal issues like tight hips and low back pain. But the scariest part for those of us who consider ourselves active? Exercise does not offset the problems that sitting causes, so let’s take a deeper look at why one of the things you’re probably doing at this moment is so bad for you, and how we can go about mitigating the risks of one of our laziest habits.

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Since you might already have heard about how bad sitting is for you, I’ll make this a quick rundown of everything that’s happening when you take a seat. Let’s start from the top, your brain. A sedentary body means less blood flow to everywhere, including the brain. Therefore, it starts to lack the nutrients, namely oxygen, that it needs to function properly and quickly, so it becomes increasingly hard to focus and think critically the longer we sit. The brain, along with a couple other organs, control hormone levels in the body, and these become severely imbalanced while we’re sitting. In particular, insulin production increases significantly because sedentary cells don’t respond to insulin well, so more of it has to be produced. Here lies the link to type II diabetes. Moving on to the lungs. Even when we sit with good posture, the ribcage is compressed, restricting full lung function and breathing. In our cardiovascular system, we see lower levels of high-density lipoproteins (the good cholesterol) that are needed to fight off deadly cardiovascular diseases. And finally, the gut is also compressed while we sit, inhibiting proper digestion and providing a reason for the higher incidence of colon cancer among those that sit excessively.

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That’s a lot of bad consequences, but despite all of this there is hope, because not all sitting is created equally. In one study, one group of people sat while slouching and the other sat with proper posture (spine in neutral position, abs engaged, etc.), and both were exposed to stress-inducing questionnaire tasks. After the task, the good posture group had higher self-esteem levels, that was determined to be caused by increased physiological arousal and more energy. On the other hand, the slouching group had a higher susceptibility to stress.

“We probably all had a relative that told us to “Sit up straight!” and “Stop slouching!” at the dinner table, but clearly we’re now finding out that sitting does more than just promote bad posture and musculoskeletal issues like tight hips and low back pain.”

But besides sitting with proper posture for shorter stints of time – which heads up, will take a while to become natural – how else can we avoid the detriments of sitting without significantly changing our lifestyle? A couple simple ways to improve our habits include setting a timer to make sure you get up and move at least once every hour, or using a small water glass instead of the 72 ounce water bottles you see everywhere nowadays so that you have to get up and refill it more often.  Also, try to fidget, roll your shoulders, or keep any other small movements going while you sit to trick your body into thinking it’s not being stationary. In light of the recent understanding of what sitting is doing to our bodies, standing and adjustable desks have been increasing in popularity over the last couple years. See if your office provides them, or invest in one for yourself so that you can keep getting work done without giving sitting the chance to attack. Notice that none of my suggestions involved quitting your desk job or getting rid of all the chairs in your house. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we’re not going to change society’s sitting problem overnight, but we should still try to help ourselves in the ways we can. Through small changes like these, along with continuing to exercise at moderate to high intensities, the goal is that we’ll be able to keep our body’s functioning properly now and well into the future.

Related: Why CrossFit?

–Jay Alexander

Coach/Trainer

jay@crossfitslipstream.com