A healthy body that functions and performs optimally isn’t something we get by chance. I believe it is the result of positive health habits and something each individual is responsible to work on and develop through his/her daily activities and lifestyle choices.
If I told you that sitting is so dangerous it is literally killing you slowly, would you believe me (1, 2)? Maybe, maybe not. Chances are you’re sitting down right now to read this blog post, and let’s face the truth: Sitting all day long is our norm. It’s what we do as a culture driven by technology and comfort.
Sitting all day is so common that most of us have no idea of how much and how long we do it. Labeled as a disease, a lethal activity and known as the new smoking of our generation, sitting is a metabolic thief and silent killer that can steal years from your life (2, 3). And if you’re an athlete who has a desk job, sitting can be a major contributor of chronic muscle and joint pain. All combined, sitting can keep you from moving and functioning optimally.
I believe that the human body was built to move, and the more we move and challenge the laws of physical health, the healthier we are. As a Corrective Exercise and Posture Specialist, I believe that sitting for extended periods of time day in and day out wreaks postural and metabolic havoc on our bodies. Reducing the amount and length of time sitting is something we all should prioritize to change, especially athletes. The cumulative effects of sitting all day long can set us up for a myriad of problems, including an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and early death (4, 5). And because sitting all day burns little amounts of caloric energy, it is now linked to increased cancer risk, weight gain and obesity (6, 7).
Did you know that just one hour of sitting may slow the production of enzymes that burn fat by as much as 90%?
Did you know that just one hour of sitting may slow the production of enzymes that burn fat by as much as 90%? Extrapolated over months and years, extended sitting is known to slow the body’s metabolism of glucose significantly, and lowers the level of good cholesterol (HDL) in our blood stream. Leading the way in this research is endocrinologist Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic. Levine’s research confirms that for every one-hour sitting we lose two hours of life expectancy, and even the World Health Organization acknowledges insufficient physical activity as a preventative global health risk (8).
Dating back to 1953, scientists began to study the effects of standing on heart health and found that standing is better for heart health and may reduce the risk of heart disease-related deaths (9). Fast forward to today and there are many research studies that link sitting with numerous health problems. One of great concern is by Mayo Clinic researchers who found that sitting for 10 hours a day effectively cancels almost 90% of the positive effects of a one-hour workout. So if you sit all day, your one hour dose of daily CrossFit or gym exercise equals a total of six minutes of positive health benefit. Six minutes, that’s it (10, 11).
It’s a bit more clear to see how we might be gaining weight even if we are hitting the gym for an hour a day, five or six days a week. And then we have the orthopedic problems. Sitting all day has a huge effect on our posture and function, and as I’ve written about in the past, unless you’re actively working on ways to correct muscle and joint imbalances, you are taking that body after sitting all day into your workouts.
It’s a recipe for an “orthopedic disaster,” as the supple leopard himself, Dr. Kelly Starrett, recently stated in his new book Deskbound. And I couldn’t agree more. Postural changes from sitting such as a forward head, rounded shoulders, a compressed spine, tight hips, hamstrings and calf muscles are going into your daily workouts. If you’re not actively working to balance your posture with a dedicated mind-body program like corrective exercise, yoga or pilates, then be warned: You’re taking that body into your high demand activity. It’s a recipe for repetitive strain and injury and the main reason for chronic muscle and joint pain.
If this scenario of sitting day in and out describes you, and you are working out only an hour a day but not getting the results you’ve been looking for, then it’s time to consider the importance of the other 23 hours in your day that you can affect. Creating healthy new habits far exceed trying to break bad ones. And when combined with a prevention healthcare mindset, the simple act of incorporating more standing into your day is one way you can offset the damage. One of the easiest ways to do this is by using a standing desk.
Standing Desk Health Benefits
Since extra time in the gym does not appear to offset the risks of prolonged sitting, the solution may be more simple than you might think: Standing up more and sitting less. Investing in a standing desk (also known as a sit-stand desk) allows an individual to change his/her workstation between sitting and standing comfortably throughout the day (12). There are many companies that market and produce stand up desks, and if you’re handy, you can search Pinterest or the web and DIY something for yourself. It’s definitely worth the cost, as early research shows that there are multiple health benefits that offset the effects of prolonged sitting. Using a standing desk can, over time, help you:
1.Lower the Risk of Weight Gain and Obesity
Prolonged sitting is strongly linked to obesity and metabolic disease (4, 13). Standing simply burns more calories than sitting and has been shown to burn over 170 calories more than sitting in a comparison of afternoon sedentary work (14). Extrapolated over a 40-hour work week, it adds up to almost 1000 extra calories used each week from simply standing at your desk each afternoon.
2.Lower Blood Sugar Levels
Standing after eating a meal can help you reduce a rise in blood sugar levels, especially in those with type 2 diabetes. Two studies report that standing for 180 minutes after lunch reduces a blood sugar spike by 43% as compared to sitting for the same amount of time, and alternating standing and sitting every 30 minutes throughout the workday reduces blood sugar spikes on average by 11.1% (14, 13).
3. Lower the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Standing is better for your heart health. Researchers have linked prolonged sitting with an increased risk of heart disease by 147% (5, 10).
4. Lower the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Other Metabolic Problems
In 2008, researchers found that individuals who sat for long periods of the day had significantly higher levels of fasting blood glucose, which means their cells were less responsive to insulin. This resulted in a failure to trigger absorption of glucose from the blood. Similar results were reported in 2013, and the conclusion is that for people already at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, reducing the amount of time sitting is more important than simply adding in more exercise (15, 16).
5. Reduce the Risk of Cancer
There are studies suggesting that extended periods of sitting can be linked with a higher risk of some cancers. Although the mechanism of how sitting increases the risk of cancer is not clear, in a 2011 study, scientists found that breast and colon cancer appear to be most affected by a lack of physical activity, and excessive sitting can also be related to lung, prostate, endometrial and ovarian cancer (17).
6. Reduce Back Pain
Multiple studies show that individuals with long-term back pain report a significant reduction in pain symptoms (18, 19). Interestingly, the CDC found that use of a sit-stand desk reduced upper back and neck pain by 54% after just four weeks, and when the standing desks were taken away, the reduced pain benefits were reversed in only a two-week period (20).
7. May Improve Energy Levels and Mental State
A recent study found that participants who used a stand-up desk reported less stress and fatigue compared to those who sat all day, and out of the standing group, 87% also reported increased energy and vigor. Even more fascinating is that upon returning to the sitting desks, the standing group’s overall mood returned back to their original levels (20). This supports research showing an increased risk of depression and anxiety with increased sedentary time (21, 22).
While there is not a cause and effect relationship clearly proven yet, a recent observational study estimates that reducing sitting time to three hours per day can raise the average American’s life expectancy by two years (23).
9. Improve Productivity and Focus
While a stand-up desk does not appear to impact a person’s ability to perform tasks better, there is research showing that productivity appears to be increased as a by-product of improved emotion and energy levels. (12).
With the multitude of harmful effects to your health and many reasons to stand up more, it is certainly worth investing in your health by purchasing or building a standing desk. If you’re like me as I write this post, there’s a good chance you’re sitting down right now to read it. So I challenge you, right here, right now, to get up and take a standing break. Be sure to stack your feet directly underneath you, lift your chest up, draw your shoulder blades back and gaze straight at the horizon for a few minutes before returning back to your seated ways.
One word of caution. In my professional experience, standing does require that you establish good posture and ergonomics. I encourage you to do some training with a great posture specialist or mind-body instructor who can help teach you not only what good standing posture looks and feels like, but ways to incorporate posture-correcting exercise into both your sitting and increased standing positions. Believe it or not, standing in good postural alignment does not come naturally to most of us. Investing in some posture correcting classes will really help with maximizing the benefits of adding more standing into your workday.
By standing more and reducing your sedentary time during your workday, you can improve your physical, posture, metabolic and mental health. I recommend that you ease into using a standing desk. Work up to building your endurance by splitting your time evenly between sitting and standing to start. Over time, increase your duration. Your body and mind will thank you.
1. “Sitting is Killing You. The Truth About Sitting Down.” MedicalBillingandCoding.org.
2. “Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It. Levine, JA. 2014.
3. “Got a Meeting? Take a Walk.” Nilofer Merchant TED. 2013.
4. “Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Biswas A, et al PubMed. 2015.
5. “Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis.” Wilmot EG, et al. 2012.
6. “Interindividual variation in posture allocation: possible role in human obesity.” Levine JA, et al. 2005.
7. “Occupational sitting time and overweight and obesity in Australian workers.” Mummery WK, et al. 2005.
8. “Global Health Risks. Mortality and Burden of Disease Attributable to Selected Major Risks.” 2009.
9. “Coronary Heart Disease and Physical Activity of Work.” Morris, JN and Crawford MD. 1958.
10″Exercise in Cardiovascular Disease Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Health. Lessons Learned From Epidemiological Studies Across Age, Gender, and Race/Ethnicity.” Shiroma EJ and Lee IM. 2010.
11. Infographic. Sitting Disease. JustStand.org.
12. “A systematic review of standing and treadmill desks in the workplace.” MacEwen BT, et al. 2015.
13. “Alternating bouts of sitting and standing attenuate postprandial glucose responses.” Thorp AA, et al. 2014
14. “Standing-based office work shows encouraging signs of attenuating post-prandial glycaemic excursion.” Buckley JP, et al. PubMed. 2014.
15. “Breaks in sedentary time: beneficial associations with metabolic risk.” Healy GN, et al. 2008.
16. “Associations of objectively measured sedentary behaviour and physical activity with markers of cardiometabolic health”. Henson J, et al. 2013
17. “Prolonged Sitting Linked to Breast and Colon Cancers.” Rettner, R. 2011.
18. “Breaking up workplace sitting time with intermittent standing bouts improves fatigue and musculoskeletal discomfort in overweight/obese office workers.” Thorp AA, et al. 2014
19. “Impact of a Sit-Stand Workstation on Chronic Low Back Pain: Results of a Randomized Trial.” Ognibene GT, et al. 2016.
20. “Reducing occupational sitting time and improving worker health: the Take-a-Stand Project, 2011.” Pronk, NP, et al. 2012.
21. “Prospective study of sedentary behavior, risk of depression, and cognitive impairment.” Hamer M and Stamatakis E. 2014.
22. “Comparisons of musculoskeletal complaints and data entry between a sitting and a sit-stand workstation paradigm.” Husemann B, et al. 2009
23. “Sedentary behaviour and life expectancy in the USA: a cause-deleted life table analysis.” Katzmarzyk PT and Lee IM. 2012.
24. “Minimal intensity physical activity (standing and walking) of longer duration improves insulin action and plasma lipids more than shorter periods of moderate to vigorous exercise (cycling) in sedentary subjects when energy expenditure is comparable.” Duvivier BM, et al. 2013.