Work, rest, socialising, commuting… we spend the better part of our lives sitting. But do we realise that it can wreak havoc on our health, asks Hema Vijay
You might be a fitness freak, exercise regularly and stick to a healthy diet. But if you are one of those who spend of lot of time sitting, your body is in trouble. Apparently, just prolonged sitting can wreak havoc on your body, regardless of your diet or exercise regimen. Studies conducted by institutes such as the American Cancer Society, the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, are finding out how dangerous ‘just sitting' for long hours can be.
Most of us spend a zillion hours every day of our lives in the sitting mode: at work or in school; in restaurants and theatres, in hospitals and salons; and in front of the television set or the computer. We sit while working, commuting, waiting, socialising, resting, relaxing.... In fact, the average 21st-Century human spends more time sitting than sleeping. But as it happens, we were not designed for such a life, and prolonged sitting can cause not just obesity, arthritis, back and neck pain, stiff muscles, inflamed muscles in the buttocks (which in turn causes a pain that radiates down the leg and the lower back), varicose veins, reduced lung efficiency, type 2 diabetes or higher ‘bad' cholesterol levels, but even heart disease and fatal blood clots!
How it happens
Just half-an-hour of uninterrupted sitting can slow down the body's metabolic rate. When we sit continuously, blood flow slows down, and blood may pool in the larger veins, increasing the risk of blood clots. “A clot moving down the veins could be fatal. Prolonged sitting also lowers insulin effectiveness after some time; it slows down metabolism and opens the door to type II diabetes,” says Dr. Shriraam Mahadevan, consultant endocrinologist, Fortis Malar. And obviously, the lack of movement implies fewer calories burnt, leading to elevated fat deposition and eventual obesity. Meanwhile, the higher cholesterol levels can lead to heart disease. “Since sitting is a relaxed posture without the need for deep breathing, there is reduced oxygen intake and lung expansion. The oxygen supply to the muscles and electrical activity in the muscles dip,” Dr. Mahadevan adds.
“On prolonged sitting, spinal curvature gets altered, resulting in aches and pains. The muscle tone in the back gets reduced, preventing absorption of calcium in the bones. This gets pronounced with age and osteoporosis is a possibility. Besides, prolonged sitting prevents normal absorption of nutrients by the spinal discs; they become less active and this may induce their premature degeneration,” informs Dr. Prashant Kekre, consultant spine surgeon, Apollo Hospitals.
Of course, there are exceptions. “Our yesteryear sages sitting for hours together cross-legged and meditating and chanting could handle it because of practice, proper posture and special breathing techniques,” says Dr. Mahadevan.
Breaking the routine
Actually, it's not just the number of hours spent sitting, but the number of breaks in between that determines the scale of the impact. So, interspersing every half-hour spent sitting with a minute of activity can make a big difference. Even if it looks weird, you may stand up every now and then, do a few simple stretches, walk or jog … this gets the circulation going again. And schools, offices, and other organisations can initiate the habit of movement by identifying places such as the water cooler area, the lab, the boss's cabin, or the stationery cupboard to reach which may require some walking or climbing a few steps.
In general, the idea is to increase the time spent on movement. Try walking about while you comb your hair or make a phone call. Even while sitting, move your feet and thighs and flex your toes when you take a short break from work. Sit on the floor to lunch or dine — the extra bending and stretching helps. Old formulae such as climbing stairs rather than taking a lift, or walking to a store rather than driving there help.
“I am an ad designer and my friend is a banker; people like us simply can't avoid sitting for long hours,” says K. Ganesh. But there is always a choice. The simple mantra is — interrupt the time spent sitting as frequently as possible.
TAKE A BREAK
* Interrupt sitting every half-hour or so with activity, even if for a minute.
* Increase time spent on movement.
* Even while sitting, move your shoulders, arms, feet, thighs and flex your toes and fingers, on and off.
* Interior and architectural design must encourage movement.