As several recent studies have discovered, sitting for too long can be as dangerous to health as smoking. It more than doubles your risk of diabetes and is linked with an increase in heart disease. In fact, inactivity is the fourth biggest killer of adults, according to the World Health Organisation.
But the scariest thing of all? The results are the same however much exercise people do when they’re not sitting down.
‘Most people think that if they work out every day that’s all they need to do,’ says researcher Dr Emma Wilmot, whose team at the University of Leicester analysed 18 studies incorporating a total of 800,000 people. ‘But those with jobs that require sitting all day may still be at risk.
‘When we sit for long periods of time, enzyme changes occur in our muscles that can lead to increased blood sugar levels. The effects happen very quickly, and regular exercise won’t fully protect you.’
The average British adult spends between 50 and 70 per cent of their day sitting down, whether it’s behind the wheel of a car or in front of a desk, computer or TV.
Dr Wilmot’s team found that people who sit the longest are twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease as those who sit the least. The team also reported that sitting for long periods appears to raise the risk of kidney disease, especially in women. And that muscle, joint and back pain, like that experienced by Kate Lurie, is becoming increasingly common among middle-class high-achievers, who spend most of their lives sitting down.
Nearly one in four workers blame their aches and pains on working in the same position for long periods of time. They take a total of ten million sick days a year, costing the British economy £5.7 billion.
Tim Allardyce, a Surrey-based osteopath and chartered physiotherapist, says: ‘The body needs mobility. Our spines are comprised of 26 mobile blocks of bone (vertebrae) which rotate, bend, extend, and are designed for movement. Knees, hips, ankles and feet are all mobile joints, too.
‘Sit in a chair for hours a day, five days a week and the spine does not move, the knees and hips are held in a flexed position, your body will get stiff, the muscles get weak and your body gets sore.
‘Hunching over a computer increases compression through the discs in the spine and causes stiffness and pain. It can even lead to a disc prolapse — known as a slipped disc.’ Leicester-based chiropractor Tim Hutchful says that symptoms often creep up without any warning. ‘I use what I call the paperclip analogy,’ he explains.
‘You could bend a paperclip once a day for a month and it will still function as a paperclip. Then one day it will just break. I treat women all the time who think they have a new injury but it is in fact the result of years of desk work. Their injury is caused by what’s known as postural fixity — being stuck in one place.’
Women who wear stilettos and pencil skirts to work are particularly vulnerable, he adds. High heels tip the pelvis forward when we walk or stand, weakening the back’s muscles, while slim-fitting skirts restrict our joints’ range of movement when we sit down. And all the experts seem to agree there’s no way of knowing when ‘sitting-down disease’ will get you.
So can you protect yourself from sitting-down disease without quitting your job? One simple way is not to sit for longer than 30 minutes without getting up. ‘Get a glass of water or go to speak to a colleague rather than email them,’ advises Mr Allardyce.
Not slouching is vital, too. ‘Sit up with your back straight, your shoulders down and back, and elbows relaxed at your sides,’ says Ian Harding, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon. ‘Your buttocks should touch the back of the chair. And avoid crossing your legs.’
Your keyboard should be directly in front of you, with the mouse by its side, and your phone close to you to avoid repetitive reaching. ‘You should be able to keep your wrist straight, shoulders relaxed and elbows by your side while using it,’ says Mr Harding.
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