Sitting is the new smoking

If you are someone who sits for long hours, either for work or for leisure, this is a must read for you. Recent studies have shown that sitting at a desk, in front of a television, on the couch etc. for extended periods of time is associated with increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart disease.

But why is sitting compared with smoking? We all know that smoking is extremely harmful, to the extent that each cigarette is considered as lethal as a bullet. Is sitting also that sinister? Let’s look at some recent trends to better understand sitting and it’s harmful effects and changes we can adopt to minimize the harm.

Work trends

A majority of the youngsters today are working in environments that require long hours of sitting. Computer professionals, bank employees, public service cadres, teachers, medical professionals, call-centre agents, drivers, the list goes on. Number of hours of sitting ranges from 4-8 hours per day for most of them which adds up to almost 30-40 hours of sitting a week. And in their non-working hours, they choose to sit some more to watch television, surf the Internet and socialize over drinks and dinner.

In fact, the risk of heart attack and stroke is much higher in Indians in their 20s and 30s as compared to the western population where it is still a disease of the older age group. A combination of unhealthy lifestyle choices and genetic predisposition underlies this health hazard and prolonged sitting or physical inactivity or less movement is definitely a contributor.

One of the popular solutions has been standing workstations where you stand and work instead of sitting and working. However, standing for long periods of time also has its disadvantages and can lead to varicose veins, foot pain etc. Hence a combination of sit/stand work environment with adequate movement every 30 minutes is what we should aim for. Walking meetings are a welcome trend for small group meetings, phone discussions and conference calls.

Workstation exercises are a set of exercises that individuals do in their work spots every few hours for a duration of 10-15 minutes to relieve the stress of working and to refresh the body and mind. We, at Cardiac Wellness Institute, take pride in providing tailored workplace health and wellness interventions for organizations.

Fitness focus

You would agree with me in my observation that Indians tend to associate movement, activity, exercise, sports and fitness with their growing-up years and then put a full stop to it. As we enter into adulthood, into work routines and start a family of our own, we become less interested in and less motivated to pursue our passion for sports or active hobbies and blame it on the lack of time.

While it is challenging to juggle responsibilities like kids, work, social demands and personal wants, it is not impossible to be active throughout the day. All seated activities should be limited to short bouts of 30 minutes or so and interspersed with stretches, minor exercises and walking breaks as permitted by the work you are engaged in.

A sustainable way to incorporate fitness in the workplace is to form activity groups or clubs and work together as a unit. Running clubs, bicycling events and swim teams are some examples of likeminded individuals pursuing active hobbies in the workplace and this is a welcome change in organizations these days.

Healthy Ageing

As we age, we need to be more active both physically and mentally to counter the slowing metabolism, weakening of bones, the psychological setback of old-age and the neurodegenerative conditions like dementia and memory loss. Sitting should not be the default posture in our retired days, instead it should be a few minutes of sitting in between household chores, outdoor activities and active hobbies.

In case you are forced to sit for long hours due to mobility issues or joint pain, it is advisable to keep moving the neck, torso, upper limbs and lower limbs at frequent intervals to improve circulation, prevent muscle wasting and strengthen muscles.

In conclusion, smoking has devastating effects on our health and is to be completely and totally avoided. Sitting however is not so dangerous for us but the associated lack of exercise leading to heart attack and other chronic ailments is the bigger health concern facing humanity today. As a strong proponent of mindfulness, I would recommend mindful sitting which simply means being aware of our seated posture and sitting straight, doing some exercises while sitting and grabbing any opportunity to break that long sit.

Sit less, move more and live a healthy life!