Written by Bunmi Sofola - Nigeria
Several recent studies have discovered that sitting too long can be as dangerous to your 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. And 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. "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." Recounting her experience of how your back protests abruptly from prolong abuse, Gina, a copy writer said: "Leaning over my 11-year-old son to check on his homework, I felt an agonising pain ripped through my right shoulder and reverberated across my back. I'd never felt anything like it before- it was awful-like hot pins burning into my skin. I slumped on to a chair, trying to stop myself from screaming in pain.
'Thinking I'd just pulled a muscle, I spent the next few days on round-the-clock painkillers. But the throbbing in my back and shoulders was so intense, it made simple tasks such as driving almost impossible. Three days later, I made an appointment with a physiotherapist and was stunned to hear that the pain was not caused by any injury but by over 20 years of sitting at a desk." Gina in her early 40s, is one of a growing number of women suffering from the barely recognised phenomenon 'sitting-down disease.' The average 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. Nvfamot'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 Gina is becoming increasingly common among middle-class high-achievers, who spend most of their lives sitting down.
Gina, a mother-of-four said she used to spend ten hours a day sitting down to work as a copywriter in a publishing company. She now wishes she'd been warned of the damage her desk job could do to her health. "It's been awful hitting forty something and feeling like an old woman. I thought I was quite fit and active, yet, suddenly doing something as simple as lifting up one of my children, or driving, has become catastrophically painful. I think of myself as a young woman with a young family but I've been hobbling around like I'm in my dotage. All because I've spent years in a desk job."
"The body needs mobility," says Wilmot. "Our spines are comprised 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 fixed 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 prolapsed-known as slipped disc. I use what I call the paperclip analog. 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 patients, 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 know as postural fixity-being stuck in one place." Women who wear stilettos and pencil skirts to work are particularly vulnerable, she adds. High heels tip the pelvis forward when we walk or stand, weakening the back muscles, while slim-fitting skirts restrict our joints' range of movement when we sit down.
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 90 to speak to a colleague rather than e-mail them," advises Wilmot. "Not slouching is vital too. Sit up with your back straight, your shoulders down and back, and elbows relaxed at your sides. 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. If you already have back, shoulder or knee pain, it's important to be as active as possible as this will help your joints recover mobility."