Is Sitting the new Smoking?
Sitting comfortably? You probably won’t be in a few minutes.
In an earlier blog I opined on marginal gains and the positive effect that using a chiropractor had had on my mobility, resulting in a run of Personal Bests. It also resulted in the order of a VariDesk, which is basically a platform that goes on your desk and at the push of a button raises your workstation to standing height. Hey presto, you can stand and work.
Why on earth would you do that, though?
In my case the chiropractor thought it would be good for my back. But VariDesks are popping up (forgive the pun) in offices all over the world, and most of them aren’t bought with lumbo-sacral health in mind. There is apparently more at stake here.
The average Brit now spends a staggering 8.9 hours* every day sitting down; whether it be in the car, a train, at the desk or in front of the TV. Perhaps even more sobering is this stat: a quarter of all Brits now walk for less than nine minutes a day. And these are just the averages.
These prolonged periods of inactivity are now known to increase risk of obesity as well as heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, muscular and back issues, deep vein thrombosis, brittle bones, depression and even dementia. The World Health Organisation has (WHO) identified physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality.
Is There any Scientific Proof to Back This Up?
Aside from the WHO's input (and they are credible) there have been a plethora of scientific studies on this topic in recent years. I am on thin ice quoting medical ‘truths’ (my wife is a Doctor and point-blank refuses to believe anything unless it has been published in a scientific journal and credibly reviewed by peers). Unlike the rest of us who take anything we read on the BBC website as ‘fact’.
The most prominent study is arguably the American Cancer Society’s 24 year Cancer Prevention Study II that followed 69,260 men and 77,462 women. In summary, these were the health implications of a sedentary lifestyle:
“In women, sitting 6 hours or more a day during free time was linked to a 65% greater risk for multiple myeloma, a 43% greater risk for ovarian cancer, a 10% greater risk for invasive breast cancer, and a 10% greater risk for any cancer at all, compared with women who sat less than 3 hours a day during free time.”
The study’s conclusion:
“Prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity.”
The last part catches the eye. What they are telling us is that even if you are Mat Fraser, Jessica Ennis-Hill or Andy Murray, if you spend all of your time away from the gym/track/court sitting down, you are probably at risk. That brings ‘fit’ people in to the equation too; which is something we are not used to.
A recent Swedish study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that when you sit all day, your telomeres (the tiny caps on the ends of DNA strands) get shorter (that doesn’t sound good). As telomeres get shorter, the rate at which the body ages and decays speeds up. Conversely, the study found “that the telomeres in [those] who were sitting the least had lengthened. Their cells seemed to be growing physiologically younger.” That made me hit the ‘stand’ button on the vari-desk!
Let me get away from medical studies and back on to firmer ground. It seems to me that we are starting to understand that sitting a lot and inactivity is bad for you. But it feels a bit like smoking in the 60’s** – we are starting to realise that it is bad for your health – but we don’t know exactly how bad it is.
Standing Desks – A Fad or the Future?
We are told that Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway (amongst others) produced their best work standing up. I love these pictures of Hemmingway and Churchill doing their stuff at their very non-high tech standing tables. Hemingway uses an old bookshelf in this picture, taken at his house in Cuba.
A glance around any office tells you that people like to stand up and walk about as soon as they answer the phone. This is possibly because they can’t do that with their computer and so take the opportunity whenever they can. A standing desk gives them this freedom to stand.
From a physiological point of view, it is well documented that hip flexors and hamstrings shorten as a result of being seated for long periods. This causes all kinds of problems with mobility and subsequent injuries.
My initial feeling is that I love working standing up. It is early days but as one of my list of ‘marginal gains’ I am hoping it will have a positive impact on my fitness. If the Swedes are telling me it will also make me look and feel younger, then I’m definitely going to give it a good crack!
I think one thing we can say for certain is that sitting down isn't good for you. And if you must smoke, for the love of God don't smoke sitting down!
Here’s one last quote for everyone with young children:
“Losing four hours of sleep is comparable to drinking a six-pack of beer” Tom Rath, Author of the New York Times bestseller, Eat Move Sleep.
Sadly nowhere near as fun...
* I have seen a range of 'stats' so I took the average of 4.
**I wasn’t around in the 60’s, but I have watched Mad Men.