August Health and Wellness

Melissa Martin, Certified Pilates Instructor |

In our modern times, we are sitting more than ever. It has become our new normal and we have engineered almost everything to be done from the arm of a chair. We can automate so much of our lives without even leaving our homes. Most of us sit all day at work, in our cars, and then spend the majority of our evenings sitting even more in front of screens. In fact, it has been estimated that we spend more time sitting in a day than sleeping. We often don’t pause to consider the health implications this can have on us, and yet, as a society, we are unhealthier than ever. Sitting all day is in fact one of the biggest risks to our health and wellbeing.

To demonstrate how harmful this is, Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic is credited with coining the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking.” In a LA Times interview, he went even further: "Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death." Dr. Levine estimates that, in the US, we spend more than half of our waking hours sitting down, either watching TV, driving, or sitting at a desk at work or at home. In addition, Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division and author of the book “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals” adds that “We are not designed to sit. The body is a perpetual motion machine." A lifestyle of prolonged sitting is a unique health hazard that increases our risks of chronic diseases, especially heart disease and type 2 diabetes, back and sciatic pain, and makes our metabolism not run as efficiently.

Breaking down physical activity

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines physical activity as not only exercise and engaging in sports, but also subcategories of physical activity such as playing, gardening, daily household chores, dancing, and other recreational and leisure activities. The two key components to physical activity and health are about spending less time sitting every day and more time engaging in physical activity itself. Interestingly, more and more research is showing that even if you hit the gym for your daily workout, it does not undue copious amounts of prolonged sitting throughout the day or protect you from its negative health outcomes. In fact, many active people misjudge themselves as such because of this, but in reality, are actually sedentary because they are spending the remaining hours of the day sitting outside of the time spent in the gym.

Figuring out how much you sit in a day

The goal should be to both reduce your overall amount of daily sitting as well as interrupting periods of prolonged sitting (which is defined as one hour or more) throughout the day. A good place to begin is taking an honest, non-judgmental inventory of what your day looks like in regards to sitting. Although we may feel busy and accomplished running around all day tackling errands and deadlines at work, we can still be sitting behind a desk, wheel, or on our couch doing these things creating the perfect Illusion of physical activity. In taking such an inventory, jot down how much time you spend driving, sitting at a desk, watching television, simply lounging without any breaks, reading, and anything else you fill your time with. Also note the amount of uninterrupted prolonged time you spend sitting per activity without any movement breaks. For example, if you watch a three hour long movie but get up halfway through to get a snack in your kitchen, you would count that as 1.5 hours of prolonged sitting plus another 1.5 hours, versus 3 hours if you did not move the entire time.

Strategies for reducing and breaking up periods of prolonged sitting

The first step is just becoming aware and being intentional as you go about your day. Start by making it a goal for yourself to interrupt periods of prolonged sitting every hour. This doesn’t necessarily mean jumping up and going for a run, but rather finishing that phone call you already started in a standing position or walking outside. Or perhaps doing some gentle stretching, readjusting your posture or walking to a colleague’s office to deliver a message rather than emailing it to them. You may find that you benefit from a standing desk so you can stand for even a 10 minute period every hour. If you’re someone who enjoys reading or watching their favorite show, you can physically get up and move to a different spot or location, or just simply stand while you finish the rest of what you are doing. It is actually more subtle and simple than you may realize, so there is no need to feel overwhelmed. Just focus on interrupting the stillness of sitting. Take advantage of technology and set alarms and reminders for yourself to get up every hour so you don’t even have to think about it. Switch things up and make it fun!