It should come as no surprise that sitting too much is bad for your health. The average adult sits for 8-10 hours per day, which can increase the risk of health problems such as organ damage, muscle degeneration, back problems, and poor circulation.
But here’s something you may not have known: sitting for long periods of time increases your risk of death from any cause, even if you exercise. That means you can’t sit at your desk (or on the couch) all day and then hit the gym later to make up for it. To reduce your risk of early death, you have to cut down on the amount of time you spend sitting.
Take a look at these 10 ways that sitting affects your health and your life expectancy, and learn changes you can make to reduce your time spent sitting — even if you have a desk job.
1. Increased risk of heart disease
Sitting for long periods of time has been linked to high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. When you sit too much, your muscles don’t burn as much fat and blood flow is more sluggish, which allows fatty acids to clog the heart more easily. People who sit extensively are more than twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease than people with the least amount of sedentary time.
2. Increased insulin resistance
Too much sitting also affects how your body responds to insulin. After you eat, the pancreas releases insulin, which carries glucose into cells to create energy. If you are sitting still, the cells in your muscles do not respond as well to insulin, so the pancreas has to produce more. One study found that just one day of prolonged sitting is enough to trigger insulin resistance. Over time, elevated levels of insulin can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes and other serious health problems such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney damage.
3. Increased cancer risk
Extensive sitting can also put you at a greater risk of certain cancers, including colon, breast, and endometrial cancer. Health experts are not completely certain why sitting increases cancer risk. Some theorize that increased insulin production promotes cell growth, which can lead to tumor formation. Others speculate that lack of movement impedes the production of natural antioxidants responsible for killing the free radicals that damage cells.
4. Muscle issues
It’s not uncommon for someone sitting at a desk for long periods to develop poor posture, which can lead to weak abdominal muscles. Your abs hold you up when you stand or sit up straight, which helps keep them strong. But when you’re slouched at a desk, your abs go unused, which can lead to over-curvature of the spine. This condition, known as hyperlordosis, can cause lower back pain — a common complaint of people who spend a lot of time sitting.
Hip flexor muscles also go unused with long periods of sitting, which causes tight hips and a limited range of motion. Decreased hip flexibility is a major contributing factor of falls among the elderly, who can suffer serious injury or even death after a fall.
While you are sitting, you’re also not using your glutes. Glutes give you the ability to push off, maintain a good stride, and maintain stability. If your glutes are typically inactive, they will weaken and your stability will be compromised.
5. Leg disorders
For most people, sitting involves keeping their legs at one angle for long periods without moving them. This can cause poor circulation. Blood can more easily pool in your legs, causing swollen ankles, varicose veins, and dangerous blood clots.
6. Weak bones
The lack of leg use when you are sitting can also cause your bones to weaken. Standing, walking, and other weight-bearing activities enable your leg bones to strengthen and grow thicker so they can support you. Researchers suspect that increasing rates of osteoporosis are linked to increased time sitting among elderly populations.
7. Poor mental health
There’s a reason exercise improves your mood: Movement gets blood and oxygen pumping all throughout your body, including to your brain. When the brain receives fresh blood and oxygen, it releases chemicals that enhance mood and brain function. Sitting still for long periods inhibits the release of of these mood-enhancing chemicals and can impair brain function. Studies show that constantly sitting can worsen anxiety
8. Neck and shoulder issues
People who spend a lot of time on the computer are often looking down at their keyboards or craning their necks to stare at the screen. Holding your neck in that position can cause serious strain and permanently affect the alignment of your vertebrae. Neck strain can also occur when you spend long periods cradling a phone.
Poor posture is also extremely detrimental to your shoulders. Slumping overextends your shoulder and back muscles, leaving them in an unnatural position and increasing your risk of upper back pain.
9. Back problems
Sitting can make your spine extremely inflexible. When you’re active, discs between your vertebrae soak up fresh blood and nutrients, helping to keep your spine strong. Sitting for a long time often leaves the discs in uneven positions, giving collagen the opportunity to harden around tendons and ligaments, further limiting your range of motion.
People who sit still for hours on end also put themselves at a higher risk of herniated lumbar discs. When the psoas muscle tightens, the upper spine is pulled forward, and the upper body weight comes to rest entirely on the sitting bones. This can lead to painful and debilitating herniated discs, which may require treatment with steroid injections or surgery.
10. Increased risk of early death
Finally, sitting too much can increase your risk of early death from any cause. In a study of participants age 45 or older, researchers found that those who sat for more than 13 hours a day were more than twice as likely to die as people who sat for less than 11 hours. People who sat for 90 minutes or more at a time were also twice as likely to die as people who sat for shorter periods.
Preventing physical damage from sitting
Making an effort to move more during the day can decrease your risk of health problems related to prolonged sitting. While adding more activity into your day is beneficial for a number of reasons, it may not be enough to reduce your risk of early death; you also have to reduce the amount of time that you spend sitting. Experts state that taking a movement break every 30 minutes is the most important behavior you can adopt to reduce your risk of all-cause mortality.
Try these tips for replacing some of your sitting time with increased activity:
- While working, get up every 30 minutes to stretch and take a brisk walk.
- Get up and walk around while talking on the phone instead of sitting at your desk.
- Walk to work if possible, or get off the bus at an earlier stop and walk the rest of the way.
- Get up and talk to coworkers if you have a question, rather than sending an email or a chat message.
- While watching TV, use commercial breaks as an opportunity to get up and walk around. Better yet, take an iPad to the gym and watch your favorite shows while walking on the treadmill.
- Get a treadmill desk. Standing desks are increasingly popular, but there is little evidence that standing in one place is better than sitting. Try walking while you work and watch your step count go through the roof!
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Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on May 22, 2018