What Are the Health Risks of Sitting at a Desk All Day?
Modern society is built for sitting; our transportation, our jobs, and our leisure time at home all often involve sitting for prolonged periods of time. This is a massive shift compared to previous generations that often had more labor-intensive jobs and then came home to housework. The average adult now spends more than half of their waking hours being sedentary or, in other words, sitting too much.
This raises the question: What are the health risks of sitting at a desk all day?
The health risks associated with sedentary jobs and lifestyles has become largely apparent with the rise of chronic diseases. We are living longer, but usually with the help of treatments for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. But what if we could live longer without the need for those pharmaceutical interventions?
Can we offset the risks associated with a sedentary life? What is the most effective way to reduce our risk? Exactly how much risk are we assuming when we sit at our desks all day? Read on to find out more.
Is Sitting Really the New Smoking?
Some media outlets may use sensational headlines and fear mongering to lead you to believe that sitting poses just as many, if not more, health risks compared to smoking. However, this is not necessarily true; smoking is still far worse for your health than sitting. Smoking any amount (even just 1-4 cigarettes per day) is more harmful than sitting and can increase the risk of all-cause mortality by 180% compared with only a 25% increase for sitting for long periods without changing position.
Still, there is no denying that sitting for upwards of 8 hours per day with minimal physical activity is bad for your health.
Furthermore, there is a dose-dependent relationship between health risks and the length of time spent in a sedentary state; the longer you sit, the higher the risk. Researchers have taken to analyzing populations in four groups:
People who spend a low amount of time sitting and more time being physically active reap the most health benefits while those who sit a lot and have low physical activity incur the most risk.
The two middle-ground options of folks who sit a lot but are highly active (affectionately known by the “Active Couch Potato” phenomenon) or folks who don’t sit much but aren’t active much either don’t necessarily reap all of the health benefits that being high activity with low sitting time does; however, they also don’t have as much risk as the folks with low activity and high sitting time.
The Health Risks of Sitting at a Desk All Day
By spending a lot of time sitting and minimal time being physically active, you are putting yourself at an increased risk for a number of common chronic diseases. This can include conditions such as:
Those who spend more time sitting tend to have higher BMI, waist circumference, fasting glucose, cholesterol (and less of the “good” HDL cholesterol), triglycerides; which are all biometrics that are associated with increased risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Reallocating 2 hours of sitting to standing instead was associated with lower fasting glucose levels, cholesterol (and higher levels of “good” HDL cholesterol), and triglycerides; alluding to the benefits of decreasing time spent sitting. Further, reallocating 2 hours of sitting to stepping or low-impact activity not only improved fasting glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides but also waist circumference and BMI measurements as well!
None of these chronic diseases are mutually exclusive.
The physiology of being inactive often lends to a combination of effects. When active, your muscles are involved in a chain reaction that helps to lower triglycerides and increase the good cholesterol (HDL) as well as use up the glucose in our bloodstream. When our body is not using that glucose and it remains in the bloodstream, it triggers the release of insulin and chronically high blood glucose levels (and thus insulin levels) leads to insulin resistance and metabolic disorders like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Minimizing The Risks That Come with Sitting at a Desk All Day
Research has shown that moderate to vigorous physical activity can help to offset the risk associated with sitting for long periods of time at a desk.
Standing desks have also become a popular solution, however standing for extended periods of time can also be hard on your back and joints, so don't expect to give up your fancy office chair for good.
Related: How to Use a Standing Desk
To completely offset the effect of 8 or more hours of sitting, a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate physical activity is required each day. That being said, even spending just 30 minutes per day doing something other than sitting provides some health benefits; whether that is sleeping, light-intensity exercise, or more strenuous exercise.
Ideally, breaking up the amount of time sitting by spending a cumulative 2 hours throughout the day either standing or in low-impact movement such as stepping has significant health benefits that can offset the risk for chronic disease. This is part of the reason many office workers are investing in their health with tools and equipment that help to create an active workstation (there are lots of different ways to make that fit your physical ability and workplace habits).
Lifestyle Changes to Consider
Most of us can’t (or don't want to) avoid desk jobs, so if you happen to be in a role where working at a desk for long stretches of time is part of your life, there are lots of things that you can do to mitigate any health risks associated with sitting at a desk all day. Here are just a few:
See if your employer would be open to purchasing a new desk or a desktop converter (this one is our favorite) that can transition between sitting and standing, a desk treadmill, or a stationary bike that is compatible with a transitioning desk and will keep you moving throughout the day.
You can support your request with research about how investing in this type of equipment can lead to decreased health benefits costs, result in better morale, and drive improved job performance.
If your boss says no, then consider personally making the investment for the sake of your well-being. There are so many options, including plenty that are quite affordable! And if you work from home and take the home office deduction, you might be able to write it off on your taxes as a business expense.
Take active breaks
Take every opportunity to be active at work.
Consider walking meetings when possible, take a walk while you are on the phone, take a break from work altogether to take a walk, get up and stretch your legs to get water or a snack, and much more!
If you don’t have a transitioning desk that can accommodate standing height, then another option is a Varidesk-style desk riser that sits on top of a regular desk and allows you to work from a standing position.
Whether it’s at home, outside, at a gym, or otherwise it is important to incorporate physical activity into your routine. One hour of moderate physical activity will offset the detrimental effects of a day of sedentary desk work, but it’s better practice to apply a combination of all of the above points and just aim to continue physical activity even after leaving the office.
Go for a walk after dinner, get some basic equipment for home workouts, join a recreational sport league (or competitive league if that’s more your thing!), find a class you like at your gym or local community center, play with your kids or pets, or do some housework instead of planting yourself on the couch every night when you get home (even if that's all you feel like doing).
The Bottom Line (get it?)
Sitting at a desk job all day has been proven in research to be detrimental to your health. The more time you spend sitting through the day, the greater the risk for chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, and cancer.
Sedentary lifestyles are also associated with earlier death.
To minimize the health risks of sitting at a desk all day, there are many ways to incorporate movement and physical activity into your workday by using standing desks, desk treadmills, and other such tools; making sure to take breaks every hour, to move, and to stretch, incorporating physical activity into your routine outside of the workplace as well.
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