Why sitting down all day is literally killing you

Why sitting down all day is literally killing you

Before answering this question, it’s important to put exercise into its correct context. Prior to the modern age, our ancestors would have had considerably more movement in their daily lives - foraging or hunting for food, building shelter, carrying young or collecting firewood. At rest we would have squatted or sat on the floor, and even in these positions there would have been constant movement as we adjusted our position. They had no requirement for formal exercise or daily mobility routine, they just moved regularly. If we all moved more regularly we wouldn’t need formal exercise either, but back to the real wold of chairs, cars, desks and sofas, movement has been replaced by sedentarism. The receptionist beckons you to “come in, take a seat” and we are taught to sit down to work from our first day at school. This is were it all starts to go wrong!

A Common Pattern of Behaviour

Breakfast sat at the kitchen table, then the car/bus/train to work. All day at a desk, then home in the same car/train/bus, only to come through the door to eat dinner at the kitchen table before relaxing on the sofa for the rest of the evening… a familiar pattern?

There are two main problems here: the sitting position itself and stillness. Let’s address them both separately.

Problem 1: Stillness

Given that the average adult human is approximately 60% water, our bodies, like water are fluid systems. It is movement of and within our system that keeps us alive…when our blood stops moving we die. Sitting down on a chair causes almost almost movement to stop. Even the small joints between the vertebrae in our spines stop moving relative to each other and the fluid that lubricates them becomes still. Movement helps with almost all our bodily functions, from the delivery of nutrients to our brain, muscles and organs, to the maintenance of healthy muscles, joints and thus our posture. Movement improves digestion, detoxification, oxygenation of our tissues and elimination of waste. When we are still, like water, we become stagnant.

Prolonged stillness causes microscopic fibres to form between our muscles and around our joints which can only be broken by movement, or massage. Think about the last time you got out of the car after a long journey… I bet you felt a strong urge to stretch, arching your back and reaching to the sky? This is called “pandiculation” and it’s what animals do when they wake-up: a big stretch and muscle contraction at the same time. This breaks these microscopic fibres that have formed over the previous period of stillness. Over time, if we do not break these fibres they get thicker, eventually forming permanent adhesions between the muscle fibres, and eventually the muscles themselves.

Problem 2: The Sitting Position Itself

Our bodies are very good at adapting to the positions we put ourselves in. In the sitting position the muscles that are slack (hip flexors, chest) start to tighten up to accommodate the the position. Conversely the muscle that are under stretch in the string position start to loosen-off (upper back, glutes). The result is a body that has become better-adapted to the sitting position than the standing position. As personal trainers and fitness coaches we see this all the time. The posture of someone who sits down for long periods of time is characterised by the following:

  • Forward head-carriage
  • Rounded shoulders
  • Weak core muscles
  • Weak lower back (often with pain)
  • Tight hips and quads
  • Tight hamstrings

    So it’s no surprise when this person puts an unusual stress on their system like playing a sport they used to be good at, or lifting a heavy bag out of a car, their bodies are out of balance and can’t cope with the stress, resulting in injury.

So in summary, it may not be practical to suggest changing your job, your kitchen table or sofa, but what I will say is try to consciously move more frequently. If you can, try to spend 3-5 minutes each morning stretching and moving, to break any of the micro-fibres that may have formed throughout the night. If you work at a desk, set an alarm at least once every hour, to alert you to the need to stand up walk about, go get a drink, just move!

Finally, children should not be made to sit down at school - I want to throw those little kids’ chairs through he classroom window! Children should be given the opportunity to work at stand-up desks, or sitting on the floor.