At some point in your life, you’ve probably muttered “This job is gonna kill me,” after a hard day at work. This utterance may not be far from the truth if you sit at a desk or in front of a computer for most of the day.
Sitting is the New Smoking: Where Do We Stand?, an article published in the British Journal of General Practice gave an overview of the modern problem of sedentary lifestyle and health risks. The piece cites the advantages and drawbacks of standing and treadmill desks, and suggests ways employers can combat problems caused by a sedentary workplace (replacing coffee breaks with exercise breaks, for example).
Sitting all day is bad for your physical health, but that’s not all. You have a greater chance of developing depression, anxiety, reduced mental clarity and other emotional or mental problems if you sit all day and don’t take breaks to exercise or simply move around.
What the Studies Say about Prolonged Sitting and Mental Health
An Australian study involving 9,000 women 50-55 over severe; years showed lack of exercise increased the likelihood of depression. Women who sat 7 or more hours sitting had a 47% greater risk of depression than women who sat four hours or less.
A second Australian study of 3,000 government workers showed workers who sat six hours or more each day were more anxious and distressed than workers who sat less than three hours each day. The worker’s level of physical activity off the job didn’t affect anxiety levels one way or the other.
This study of 222 Australians ages 45 and older also showed people who sat 11 hours daily had a 40% greater chance of dying in the next three years than subjects who sat at a desk for less than four hours.
Depression and anxiety isn’t caused by sitting alone. Deskbound workers are also staring at a computer screen all day instead of interacting with people. Watching a screen all day causes a decline in social skills. The less time you spend interacting with people face-to-face, the more likely it is you’ll slowly lapse into a kind of “hypnotized introversion.” If you sit at a desk and work on a computer all day, and then go home spend hours watching TV, playing video games or browsing the internet, you’ll further increase the chance of isolation, loneliness and depression.
A UK study looked at data from research from a national well-being project. It showed that spending many non-work hours watching TV or looking at computers or Smartphones resulted in lower mental and emotional well-being. Women who spent long hours sitting after work also experienced depression more than active women.
Sitting on the Job Is Not A New Thing
You probably spend at least half of your workday sitting at a desk unless you’re in one of these U.S. jobs. Work requiring employees to sit at a desk all day is nothing new. Why, all of a sudden, is sitting the new smoking?
The most obvious culprits are computers and the internet.
Before the internet age, office workers and students had to walk to file cabinets to find information instead of clicking on a mouse and finding it without leaving their desks.
Students had to go to the library and find books, magazines and other study materials with the information they needed. Researching involved much more standing and walking than it does now. Since you now have all the information you need on the computer, there’s no need to move out of your chair, much less down the hall or across town, to retrieve research materials.
You can conduct a meeting via Skype and Facetime instead of driving or flying to another location for a face-to-face meeting. You text instead of typing up a snail mail letter and walking to the mailbox to send it. You email instead of walking to the fax machine to send a fax.
The extra time spent doing these little errands could eat up a few hours a day for some office workers.
If you want to avoid sitting all day, you might consider changing careers and becoming a physical therapist, electrician, or janitor. The list of U.S. jobs that require standing instead of sitting cause medical problems of their own, and many of them aren’t so healthy for your bank account, either.
What Happens to Your Body When You Sit All Day
The main complaint against sitting all day usually involves the threat to physical health.
When you sit all day, large lower body muscles (the ones in your butt, hips and legs) don’t contract. This results in extra glucose going into the bloodstream which can cause diabetes or heart disease. It can also lower brain efficiency, making your thinking process disoriented or sluggish.
Sitting causes everyday aches and pains. You can get a backache, neck ache, eye strain or headache from sitting at a computer all day. An ergonomic keyboard, chair and desk will reduce some of these common problems, but you still need to get up and move to reverse the health problems caused by sitting.
Prolonged sitting affects heart function and can cause diabetes, metabolic syndrome cancer, high blood pressure, and obesity. And even if you eat a healthy diet, you’ll find your midsection getting flabby if you sit all day. (A flabby middle is one of the signs of metabolic syndrome.)
When you sit for a long time, the position mimics anti-gravity situations an astronaut experiences. Get up from your chair to prevent the low gravity effects of sitting on earth. Ideally, you should get up to stretch or walk every 15 minutes to counteract the effects of sitting for an extended time.
Move It or Lose It
The solution to ill health caused by a deskbound job? Move your body more throughout the day.
Going to the gym for an hour after six or eight hours of continuous sitting won’t undo the damage caused by being sedentary. Keep your body and mind healthy with intermittent movement throughout the day. Walk and stretch every 15 or 20 minutes. Leave your desk at lunch and take a walk outdoors or visit a colleague in another office.
Anyone who sits all or most of the day can be more active. People confined to a wheelchair don’t have any choice when it comes to sitting all day. But they can play wheelchair basketball or do exercises to strengthen their arms and torso. They can operate a manual wheelchair instead of using a power wheelchair, spend time outdoors or visit with friends and relatives.
We’ve talked about sitting and health, but standing all day has its drawbacks, too. Standing at work without walking causes different medical problems. People who stand all day without moving around, like a supermarket cashier or sales clerk, may suffer from varicose veins or edema. A combination of standing, sitting and walking, though, won’t pose as much of a problem. Unfortunately, not all jobs allow you to vary your physical activity level throughout the day.
Vitamin D and Mental Health
If you sit all day in a windowless office, you are also missing out on fresh air and Vitamin D. A study by the University of Alberta showed that nine out of ten office workers have insufficient levels of Vitamin D. Statistics gathered from 71 health journals indicated 77% of office workers had Vitamin D deficiency. Only shift workers had less Vitamin D in their systems, with 80% of subjects lacking in the vitamin.
The amount of Vitamin D you receive each day makes a big difference in your emotional state. Lack of Vitamin D can reduce mental clarity and cause depression. There are physical repercussions, too, When you get too little Vitamin D, you won’t be able to absorb calcium properly, and this can result in weak bones and fatigue.
The best way get more Vitamin D has nothing to do with your diet. We get most of our Vitamin D from sunshine. Spending 10 or 15 minutes outside, with sunshine in direct contact with your bare skin, will fulfill most people’s Vitamin D requirements. Adults over 50 and people who don’t get outdoors much may need to take a Vitamin D supplement.
Office workers, especially ones who eat lunch at their desk or the company cafeteria, may spend all days indoors and only see the sun in the morning when they walk from their car to the building entrance.
Find ways to get more direct sunlight during the daytime. Go outdoors on lunches and breaks. Rearrange your work hours so you’ll arrive at or leave work when the sun is shining. You may even be able to spend some of your day working outdoors, if you have a laptop and your company has an outdoor patio.
What to Do If You Have to Sit All Day
Here are some things you can do to keep your body moving during the day:
- If you work at home or have an open-minded employer, you can use a standing or treadmill desk or spend a certain amount of time standing up at your conventional desk.
- Sit on an exercise ball for part of the day.
- Keep a plastic stepper under or near your desk and take frequent breaks to do a few steps. Steppers offer the same workout you’d get climbing up a staircase.
- Set a timer to remind you to stand up or walk around every 15 to 20 minutes if you tend to become absorbed in your work. If you watch TV or browse the Internet after work, follow the same routine, or walk in place (or on an aerobic step) for ten minutes or more every hour. Even better, find a new, more active, hobby.
- Go to the water fountain or break room for a healthy beverage. Drinking water, green tea or herbal tea throughout the day will keep you hydrated and clear out toxins from your body. And it will add a few more steps to your daily total.
If you must snack, choose dried fruits, whole-grain crackers, plain, air-popped popcorn or fresh fruit. Avoid excess salt, sugar and junk food.
Even a few minutes of leisurely movement every hour can do a lot to improve your health if you must sit all day at work. Walking or any physical activity will activate neurotransmitters in your body called endorphins to give you a happy “rush.” The more you exercise, the better you will feel.
If your workplace has strict rules about standing at your desk or taking short breaks to get a drink, stretch, etc., talk to your supervisor about your concerns. Consider transferring to another department or looking for another job if your employer won’t bend the rules to accommodate a healthier environment. This may be easier said than done, but if you are depressed, anxious or suffering from the physical effects of too much sitting your work, as well as the rest of your life, will suffer.
Most companies are aware of the deleterious effects of sitting all day and will help employees maintain good health. A healthier workplace increases employee production and reduces sick days.
Walking (even if you walk in place by your desk) can make a big difference in your attitude and mental health if you sit all day. Any physical activity, even standing up for a few minutes, will help breakdown fats and sugar to prevent weight gain. Sitting impedes these processes.
A Little Motion Goes a Long Way
Incorporate more physical activity during the day, eat healthy, and be aware of the amount of time you spend on computers and video games after work. Cut down on leisure time in front of a screen and replace it with sports, yoga, art and other hobbies that stimulate the mind and body.
If you walk and exercise more during the day, but sitting at a computer still leaves you feeling lethargic or blue, try taking a safe, all-natural supplement to boost your mood.
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