I go from my desk, to my sofa, to my bed. Repeat.” This is my patient’s description of her daily routine.
With fewer reasons to leave the house, people are spending an unprecedented amount of time on their butts. Before you say, “My body is a temple—I work out every day,” know this: even if you do manage to exercise for an hour a day, research shows it doesn’t fully undo the dangers of extended sitting.
Over half of remote workers report sitting for almost three hours longer each day than they used to when they worked in an office. Occasions for “incidental ambulation”—such as a stroll down the hall for a meeting or to ask a co-worker a question have evaporated. Now accustomed to at-home delivery of pretty much everything, there are fewer errands to run. Why go to Starbucks if the latte can be brought to your door?
All this sitting is unhealthy, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. In 2012 I-Min Lee, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, published a landmark paper in The Lancet showing that prolonged periods of inactivity kill more than 5 million people every year globally, making the health risks similar to smoking and obesity.
Spending the majority on one’s time immersed in low-energy activities like watching TV, working at a computer, and playing videogames has adverse psychological effects too. Reductions in physical activity and increased sitting time contribute to the worsening depression and anxiety in the wake of COVID-19.
To be fair, the problem isn’t sitting per se. It’s how we sit. The Hadza hunter-gatherer people of Tanzania sit for up 10 hours a day but unlike us, they avoid the dangers of inactivity. Why? Because they’re not sitting on their bottoms in a comfy chair or reclining on a sofa, remote control in hand. The Hadza squat, kneel, and sit on the ground in various “active resting” positions that require them to use their muscles. But when we sit, we recline in comfortable, supportive chairs with high backs and armrests. Our chairs don’t require any muscle engagement or effort at all.
“The problem with chairs and beds is they allow us to turn our muscles off and sag into cushions.”
Instead of sagging into cushions, here is what you can do:
1. Sit in “active resting” positions. Consider getting an inflatable ball for sitting at your desk. During leisure time, sit on the floor sometimes. If you cannot resist reclining, be sure to stand up regularly and stretch your legs.
2. Add more incidental ambulation to each day. Schedule a casual stroll around the block at lunchtime. Meander down the hall at the end of each hour. Turn phone calls into walking opportunities. No need to break a sweat or put on sneakers. Studies show that just putting one foot in front of the other for ten minutes can brighten your mood.
3. If you’re reading this sitting down, stand up, and take a walk.
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman