Yes, Sitting Too Much Really IS That Harmful

May 5, 2022

Ever heard the term “sitting is the new smoking”? This catchy phrase might sound like an exaggeration, but it actually speaks to an important truth we should ALL pay attention to! Why? Because more and more research points to a surprising number of health risks associated with excessive sedentary behavior—aka, too much sitting.

Plus, it’s not just how much you sit that can have a negative impact on your health, but how you sit, as well. Allow me to explain.

The Surprising Harms of Sitting Too Much

We’ve probably all experienced stiffness and discomfort in the neck or back after sitting for too long. For some of us, back pain associated with sedentary behavior can even become a chronic problem.

Here are a few reasons why your back or neck is so sore after sitting:

  • When we sit, we tend to slouch. This forward flexed position increases pressure and shear forces on discs, joints, and other tissues of the spine, which can cause temporary discomfort. (Here’s some interesting trivia: for every one inch forward you hold your head forward relative to your body, your neck has to withstand roughly ten extra pounds of force!) Over time, prolonged slouching could also increase the risk of age-related “wear and tear” in the spine.
  • Sitting too much means we’re not moving around enough, which can lead to weakness in important muscles of our core, including the obliques, deep abdominal muscles, glutes, and pelvic floor. We need these muscles to help stabilize our spine.
  • Sitting too much can also cause tightness and reduced range of motion in the shoulders and hips, which can put even more pressure on the spine.
  • Not to mention those that are living with pelvic pain. All of that increased pressure can mean increase pain.

But wait…there’s more! (Sorry.) According to Mayo Clinic, sitting too much also increases a person’s risk of death from things like cancer and cardiovascular disease, and raises the risk of health problems like high blood sugar, obesity, abnormal cholesterol levels, and high blood pressure.

So, what’s “too much” exactly? This answer might be different for different people, but many studies point to eight hours per day, roughly, as a benchmark linked to undesirable health outcomes.

Interestingly, stopping at the gym after spending all day at your desk might not even be enough to “cancel out” all that sitting. Some recent research suggests that the harmful effects of sedentary behavior persist even if a person gets the recommended 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days or every day.

But don’t worry: there’s no need to be scared of your chair.

5 Ways to Sit Less (And Sit Better!)

A 2012 study published in BMJ Open found that reducing your excess sitting time to less than three hours a day could add an additional two years to your lifespan—so let’s get moving! Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Use external cues. Set reminders on your phone or computer, put up sticky notes around your desk, drink lots of water (great for tissue health, stand for all phone calls, TV commercials, and text messages…do whatever you need to do to remember to get out of your seat more often!
  2. Make your set-up more spine friendly. Put your computer monitor at eye level and about an arm’s distance away from you. If you can, create or invest in a standing desk for your workspace.
  3. Add in some movement. What can you do before, during, and after your sitting sessions to get your neck, back, shoulders, hips, and legs moving? Keep it simple. I like ankle pumps, glute squeezes, and forward and side-to-side neck bends, shoulder circles, shoulder squeezes, and overhead arm raises, to name a few.
  4. Be mindful of how, not just how much. When it comes to sitting safely, “perfect posture” is less important than “different postures.” Avoid slouching, but don’t force yourself to sit straight as an arrow either—and no matter how you sit, try to shift your weight or stand up at least once or twice per hour.
  5. Consult with a physical therapist for a postural screen. Our Bethesda and McLean physical therapist team can check for hidden mobility restrictions, core muscle dysfunction, and other issues that could be exacerbated by sitting. We can also give you personalized stretches and exercises designed to address your body’s unique needs.

Are You in Pain from Your Desk Job?

If you’re ready to start physical therapy in Bethesda or McLean, contact ITR Physical Therapy now at 301-770-7060 to schedule an appointment!

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