The one daily activity that can make or break your health

We all want to be healthy. The healthier we are, the longer we live, and most of us would trade almost anything for more time. It can be enough to motivate us to get off the couch, even when exercise sounds terrible.

As it turns out, getting up can be as important like the exercise itself. And that’s because there’s an insidious health hazard built into all of our lives. Are you ready to hear it? You won’t want to sit through this.

The big problem here is actually too much sitting. As the world modernizes and digitalizes, we have to spend much more time sitting down than in the past. The problem, more and more studies are revealing, is that sitting affects our health. While calling it the new smoking may be too extreme, it has a negative effect on a number of important health factors. Let’s take a closer look.

How sitting affects your body

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Sitting a lot means you have what experts call a sedentary lifestyle. And this seriously affects your health. Research shows that people who sit a lot (for hours at a time) are more likely to:

In other words, the more you sit, the more likely you are to deal with some of the biggest obstacles to longevity and quality of life. Constantly standing in the same position overuses some muscles and underuses others, which can cause cramps, tension or weakness over time. It also slows metabolism and blood flow, making it harder for the body to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, and more.

This means that even if you never get a serious diagnosis, sitting can make you feel physically worse day after day. What’s more, sitting too much can negatively affect your mental state and even brain health. As reported by Yale Medicine, sitting has been linked to depression and dementia.

To highlight all of this, several studies have found that too much sitting is associated with higher overall mortality or death from any cause. This may be due to the direct health effects of sitting, or it may be because a sedentary lifestyle is associated with other behaviors that affect health.

In short, if you look at the growing body of research on our sedentary lifestyles, it’s clear that too much sitting isn’t doing us any favors.

4 ways to reduce the effects of sitting all day

A non-binary person watering houseplants with a blue watering can.

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Maybe you have no choice but to sit a lot. Whether you work at a desk or have a disability that requires you to sit often, you should know that you have options. The steps you take (quite literally) can make a dramatic difference in the sedentary health risks you face.

1. Sit less (if you can)

For starters, if you’re physically able, try to sit less overall. This might mean raising your laptop or monitor so you can stand while you work or you choose to listen to a podcast and go for a walk instead of watching an episode of a TV show.

Assess where you spend the most time sitting, whether it’s at work, at home or elsewhere. Then look for ways to get more on your feet. If you tend to sit on the couch when you’re at home, consider taking up an active hobby or cooking more involved meals—that extra time on your feet can do wonders.

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2. Break your session

When you sit, break up long stretches of sitting as often as you can. According to one study, you should aim to get up every 30 minutes and move your body for three minutes. Even taking just 15 steps can be enough to realign your body and relieve some of the stress that comes with sitting. However, the more movement you incorporate into your day, the better.

It may be helpful to set a timer for 30 minutes whenever you’re at your desk, as Dr. Erik Nastlund, a professor at the Karolinska Institute who led the study, told the New York Times. Not only will this serve as a reminder to get up, but it can also help you focus. Research puts the amount of time a person can focus on a task anywhere between 10 and 52 minutes. By taking breaks every half hour, you hit that sweet spot. Knowing that you have a working timer can motivate you to stay on task so that you get more done during sitting sessions as well.

To avoid sitting too much, it’s helpful to have things to do to encourage you to get up. If you are able, you can:

  • Make it a habit to walk while taking phone calls
  • Use a smaller water glass/bottle and coffee cup so you don’t have to get up for refills more often
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • If you take a train or bus, choose to stand (you’ll make room for someone who might need it)
  • Use your lunch break to talk on a walk (you will get the added benefit of vitamin D)
  • Walk from one end of the house/apartment to the other between each episode of TV
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3. Exercise regularly

Make it a goal to move every day of the week for at least 30 minutes. Regular exercise can help counteract the health risks of sitting, although it won’t completely reverse them. Officially, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise; plus two or more days of strength training.

4. Sit the right way

Finally, when sitting, make sure that your sitting position does not put undue strain on your body. The best sitting position is one that:

  • It allows you to place your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent at 90 degrees
  • Keeps your neck straight (you may need to raise your computer monitor for this)
  • Helps your shoulders relax (you might want armrests on your chair, for example)
  • Allows you to write or type with elbows at 90 degrees and wrists supported

Some people may also benefit from additional support for the lumbar spine (essentially the lower back). You can buy a pillow to put in your chair to support the natural curve of your spine.

The illustrated figure shows incorrect and correct sitting postures.

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After all, how much you sit directly affects your overall health. That doesn’t mean you can never enjoy a relaxing day lounging at home. But it’s worth assessing how often you sit and for how long so you can take steps to make sure you’re not sitting too much.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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