“Sitting is the new smoking” is a recently buzzy phrase that is just starting to catch on in the health and wellness community. It can be difficult to imagine how such an innocuous activity—if it can be called that—can pose any serious dangers, but experts agree that there is some truth to the statement. In this article, we discuss how sitting might just be analogous to one of the most dangerous vices in the world, and what to do to mitigate the effects.
The Dangers of Sitting
On its own, the act of sitting down does not pose any significant health risks. It’s sitting down for too long that can cause issues. We spend over half of our waking hours sitting down: driving, sitting at a desk at work, watching television. According to a 2019 report from the Washington Post, the average American adult spends about 6 and a half hours a day sitting, while teenagers between the ages of 12 to 19 spend 8 hours a day sitting. Sitting contributes to an inactive, sedentary lifestyle—and that’s where the danger comes in.
Because humans are built to stand upright and keep moving, sitting is an unnatural position that forces the body’s internal systems to function differently from how they’re supposed to. The heart and cardiovascular system have to work harder to maintain healthy circulation throughout the body. Sitting shuts down electrical activity in the legs, causing metabolism to drop significantly after just 30 minutes. It also exerts pressure on the neck, lower back, and shoulders, producing tension, soreness, and pain.
As a result of these changes in the body’s fundamental functions, sitting has been linked to weight gain and obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even certain cancers. It can also have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental health: people that sit more have a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety.
Perhaps the most dangerous effect of sitting for too long is DVT or Deep Vein Thrombosis. This is the name for a blood clot that usually develops in the legs as a result of sitting for an extended period of time. If it breaks loose, it can travel to the lungs and cause a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism. It’s a significant enough health risk that the CDC has its own page on Deep Vein Thrombosis. You can protect yourself by wearing socks that offer good compression, such as Burlix sitting calf crew socks, which help maintain healthy blood flow in the legs.
How to Combat the Risks
The first and most practical way to avoid the health risks brought about by a sedentary lifestyle is to engage in physical activity. It’s important to stay active throughout the day, even if you’re a student stuck in class or an office worker seated at your desk for most of it. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week. This means engaging in physical activities that make you break a sweat and work hard enough to elevate your heart rate. Try brisk walking, dancing, doing household chores, or playing outside with your children.
Those who do not have the luxury nor time for moderate-intensity physical activities can offset the effects of extended sitting and being sedentary with light-intensity activities instead. These include taking a leisurely walk around the office or doing stretching exercises at your desk. A standing desk can also be an immensely helpful tool for office workers. Pair it with an anti-fatigue mat that reduces the pressure on the back and legs.
Experts suggest limiting sitting time to 3 hours a day. To remind yourself to stand up, you can set a recurring notification on your smartphone or laptop. Some smart watches and fitness trackers are equipped with an Activity Reminder feature that will alert you when you’ve been sitting for over an hour. You should be aiming for at least 2 to 3 minutes of activity for every hour you’ve been sitting.
Travelers going on long flights can protect themselves from DVT by booking a seat in an exit row for better leg room and performing regular leg exercises over the course of the journey. Pilots use compression socks or stockings, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Before traveling, it may be beneficial to contact your physician to learn more about your risks and how to prevent blood clots. Some doctors can prescribe you with anticoagulants or blood thinners for the long trip.
It’s amazing what a few lifestyle adjustments can do for your well-being. Simply committing to getting up and moving around more can have a dramatic effect on your physical condition and disposition, while mitigating the risks of marathon sitting. Even leisurely movement can have a meaningful effect, so get on your feet now!