Sitting comfortably? Time to move.


Most of us spend a high proportion of our lives sitting down, contributing to tightness in our hip flexors, leading to potential spinal problems. It’s easy for us to be consumed by work and lose track of time. For many of us this means prolonged periods of inactivity, sitting in front of computer screens, televisions, mobile phones or whatever. With sedentary lifestyles still on the rise, the latest research for the impact on our health raises serious concerns. This includes issues with vascular and brain health.

Sitting and vascular health

Vascular health includes the arteries, veins and capillaries that carry blood to and from the heart, so we don’t want to create unnecessary problems; blood clots can clog vessels and block blood flow to the heart or brain. So, it got my attention when researchers found that when a person sits for six straight hours, vascular function is impaired.

The study found that when you sit for this amount of time, or the majority of an eight-hour work day, blood flow to your legs is greatly reduced.

The good news – just 10 minutes of walking after even this extended time reversed the detrimental effects.

Sitting and brain health

The importance of sleep for general wellbeing, but particularly because of its impact on brain health, is increasingly well known. Yet this doesn’t extend to all types of downtime. Researchers from UCLA have found that too much sitting is bad for our brain, emphasising that physical inactivity is very different from rest or sleep.

Researching into how sedentary behaviour influences brain health, especially regions of the brain that are critical to memory formation, they found that it is a significant predictor of thinning of the MTL, which can be a precursor to cognitive decline and dementia in middle-aged and older adults. Further, bursts of physical activity, even at high levels, is insufficient to offset the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods.

The lesson: from the perspective of the brain, sleep is the only safe sedentary time; when awake, don’t sit around for extended periods. Reducing sedentary behaviour may even be a possible target for interventions designed to improve brain health in people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Tips to interrupt uninterrupted sitting

What to do: break up sitting/desk time. Set a timer for every hour and then move around for 2-5 minutes to try to off-set some of the negative effects of prolonged sitting. Walk up and down the stairs, along an office corridor, enjoy water-cooler moments across the day, or just go for a quick wander. The guys at No Targets like to do frog squats on the hour – great for improving mobility and flexibility.

Just standing up can help

Standing can help develop more flexible hips, reduce stress on the spine – cutting the risk of lower back pain – and can even improve mental alertness through improved blood flow.

Yet a recent study confirms another unexpected benefit; standing can help burn more calories.

Instinctively this feels right – after all, standing makes the body work harder, pumping blood through the system, but results from Mayo Clinic study found that adults who weighed 65k/143lbs (the average weight in the study) burned 0.15 more calories per minute while they stood compared to when they sat, or some 9 calories per hour. This average came from examining some 46 different studies; drilling down into the data they found that standing men burned twice as many calories as standing women, which they speculated may relate to men typically having more muscle mass, burning more energy.

Now 6 calories an hour for the average women or 12 calories an hour for men might not sound like a lot, but simply by standing an extra four hours a day – say on your commute or by instituting standing meetings – a woman could lose 1.1kg/2.5lbs and a man 2.2k/5lbs over the course of a year, never mind help you avoid the increased risks to vascular and brain health.

So, don’t just rest on your laurels, stand more, move more, otherwise sitting comfortably for too long may make for uncomfortable health checks.

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Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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