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Is Sitting the New Smoking?

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

In recent years more evidence has surfaced that shows frequent prolonged sitting can have serious consequences for your health. The effects of too much sitting are multifactorial and have been compared to the risks of smoking; the phrase "sitting disease" has even found recent popularity in describing the problems that stem from our sedentary society. But unlike smoking, many of us are "obligated" to sit for a large portion of our day.

For those who work from a desk and commute to work in a car, an average workday can require over 8 hours of sitting, and following this many unwind from a day at work by sitting and watching Netflix, browsing the internet, or reading. So for those obligated to sit, what are the risks, and what are some practical ways to overcome them?

In a 2018 study, the American Cancer Society found that sitting for 6 hours or more a day was associated with a 19% higher rate of death compared to sitting less than 3 hours per day. This risk of death was from "all causes", a spectrum of morbidities including cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, digestive disease, musculoskeletal, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease. These findings suggest that too much sitting can have wide-reaching negative effects on multiple body systems including cardiovascular, digestive, musculoskeletal, and neurological. The study cannot be used to conclude why sitting has these effects but the American Cancer Society poses possible explanations that include the lack of exposure to sunlight, possible increases in snacking and unhealthy eating due to inactivity, the reduced load placed on the cardiovascular system, and a possible negative effect on the body's hormone levels leading to a weakening of the immune system. It is likely that frequent prolonged sitting leads to a combination of these and other negative impacts on the body, leading to the increased risk of the myriad of diseases the study sites.

In addition to the risk of the quantity of life (i.e. dying sooner), long periods of sitting can also reduce the quality of life. As a chiropractor working in a sports medicine clinic, I can attest that I see far more patients suffering from muscle and joint pain as a result of prolonged sitting than from sports injury or overuse. Oftentimes, desk workers and drivers develop pain that feels "tight, achy or burning" at the base of their neck, in their traps, or in their lower back.

For some, neck and shoulder pain may seem inconsequential, but for those who develop chronic pain their 9-5 desk job becomes akin to torture and their pain steals the joy from their family time and weekend hobbies. Some of these patients I meet find themselves in what feels like a state of crisis, they need to provide for their families with a job that is slowly wearing away at their health and quality of life and they don't see a way of breaking the cycle.

So how can the cycle be broken?

1. Sit Less. This is the most obvious solution, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you need to quit your desk job. Try taking breaks to stand and walk every hour when working and consider upgrading to a transitioning desk that allows you to stand or sit while at work. If you live close to work consider walking or biking for your commute. During leisure time, be conscious to limit your sitting. Take your book onto the treadmill, do some low-intensity yoga while watching television, there are many ways to stay active and moving.

2. Sit Better. A certain amount of sitting is unavoidable, so when you are sitting make sure it's in a way that causes as few muscle and joint problems as possible. There are many resources including videos and infographics about how to set up your workspace to avoid neck and back pain. We've made a walkthrough video that can be seen here: Use these tools to make your workspace and car seat setup as ergonomically friendly as possible.

3. Exercise. Remember the study cited earlier in this post that showed a 19% increased risk of mortality in those who sat more than 6 hours a day? Similar studies performed showed that 60-75 minutes of intense activity can help counteract the harmful effects of sitting. The method of exercise is not as important as the time, intensity, and consistency. So find a form of exercise that you love and do it as regularly as possible throughout the workweek.

4. Conservative therapies such as chiropractic, massage, and yoga. If you spend enough time sitting that it starts to cause pain, that's your body's way of telling you that you have a problem. Oftentimes, muscle imbalances, pinched nerves, and stiff joints can result from too much sitting, and these are difficult conditions to remedy at home. Try conservative treatments such as chiropractic, massage, or guided yoga to help manage the effects of prolonged sitting.

So in a way, sitting is indeed the new smoking, and as smoking becomes less common in America, we are finding ourselves sitting more than ever. Although we are still learning more details of the negative effects of sitting, science and medicine are in agreement that we should limit our time spent sitting in order to stay as healthy as possible. If you're someone who suffers from muscle or joint pain as a result of sitting, I would encourage you to see a chiropractor. We are all too familiar with the muscle and joint problems that can stem from too much sitting and can help you overcome them and minimize them in the future.



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