We have all done a weekend of sitting in front of the television, often as a way to de-stress from the week.
Most of us who have regular jobs very likely spend most of the day sitting and squinting at a computer screen, often with bad posture, and suffering a stiff neck at the end of the day.
We are subconsciously aware that this prolonged sitting cannot be promoting good health, but do we have an understanding of what might be going wrong in our bodies when we remain sedentary for such long periods?
The problems, according to research, range from top to toe, including mental health, joint and muscle disease, and of course, back problems.
Prolonged sitting can be damaging even if you work out regularly.
Experts believe that we have to separate sitting and exercise as two different entities when it comes to contributing – or negatively affecting – our health. Your regular evening session at the gym is a great habit, but unfortunately, it cannot undo the full day of being at your desk.
Why would sitting too much cause health problems?
Experts cannot confirm that it is the primary cause of certain health problems but there is a link between those ailments and prolonged sitting.
An explanation could be that prolonged sitting causes less oxygen intake, which slows blood flow and causes your body to burn less fat.
Potential problems of too much sitting include:
Abs: You use your abdominal muscles when you stand or even sit up straight, but it goes unused when you slump in your chair.
Slouching for too long, combined with tight back muscles, can cause hyperlordosis, where the spine’s natural arch becomes exaggerated.
Hips: Stiff hips are one of the main reasons senior citizens tend to lose their balance and fall.
Flexibility in your hips maintains your sense of balance, but prolonged sitting causes the hip muscles to shorten and tighten, limiting motion and stride length.
Glutes: These are in the buttocks area. Your glutes are the largest muscles in your body. They orchestrate movement of your hips, allowing you to move up, down, left, right and side-to-side.
When your glutes are used to not doing much for long periods, it will affect your hip flexibility.
Poor circulation: Blood will pool in the legs when you sit for too long and blood circulation slows. This causes problems like swollen ankles, varicose veins and harmful blood clots called deep vein thrombosis.
Bones: Osteoporosis is loss of tissue mass in one’s bones. We build that mass through activities like walking and running to promote the growth of bone density, especially in our hips and lower body.
Prolonged sitting has been linked to osteoporosis.
Brain: When your muscles move, you are pumping blood and oxygen to your brain, allowing it to function at an optimal level, while releasing mood-enhancing chemicals.
Sitting for too long slows all this down, and your brain suffers.
Neck: Straining your neck towards a computer screen or cradling a phone between your ear and shoulder puts pressure on the cervical vertebrae and could lead to permanent imbalances.
The strain extends to your shoulders and back muscles.
Spine: The soft discs in our vertebrae expands and contracts, absorbing nutrients from circulating blood. Prolonged sitting squashes the discs unevenly, whilst collagen hardens in tendons and ligaments.
Lumbar disk: You are at greater risk of a herniated lumbar disk if you sit for too long. Upper body weight relies entirely on the ischial tuberosity, also known as sitting bones, instead of being distributed along the spine.
You can reduce the hazards of prolonged sitting by:
Standing desks – Some workplaces are open to the idea of switching to standing desks, which was reportedly favoured by famous figures like Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill and Leonardo Da Vinci.
It should be quite easy to set one up if you work from home.
Get up as often as possible – Give yourself a break from sitting every 30 minutes throughout the day. Take a water break, or go and talk to a co-worker on the other end of the room, instead of calling or emailing.
When you are watching TV at home, get up from the couch during commercials, even if you do not need the bathroom.
Sit on something wobbly – An exercise ball is a good alternative if you cannot get a standing desk. It forces you to sit up straight, maintain balance and works your core muscles as you sit.
Your feet should be flat on the floor to support a significant portion of your weight.
Stretch – Throughout the day, stretch your hips and back, and loosen your shoulders and neck for at least three minutes daily.
Learn some yoga poses, like the cow pose and cat pose, and incorporate them into your stretches.
Sit properly – Inevitably, we can’t avoid sitting during the day, but you can do it correctly.
Sit with your back straight, shoulders relaxed and don’t lean forward. Try to keep your arms relaxed and close to your sides. Your feet should be flat on the floor.
Experts believe there is a need to treat problems that come with prolonged sitting and an exercise routine as two separate components that affect one’s health.
It sounds counterintuitive at first – after all, if I work out every day, even on weekends, why can’t I prevent problems from prolonged sitting?
But take sleep, for example. Exercise does not compensate for a night of poor sleep, so why should it offset a full day of prolonged sitting?
Still, sitting does help you to relax and decompress if you have been engaged in a full day of activities. In social settings, it helps you relax and people feel more comfortable engaging in conversation and other group activities.
Just make sure to change things up regularly when it comes to periods of prolonged sitting.
Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist. For further information, visit www.primanora.com. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.