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Don’t sit on your health

Here’s why sitting is the new smoking

Ways to combat a sedentary lifestyle or "sitting disease" if the chair is your nemesis

10 Oct 2022
Here’s why sitting is the new smoking

When someone says “dangerous activities”, sitting is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Unfortunately, prolonged sitting has gone under the radar as a real health threat: we now know a range of health conditions, from high-blood sugar to rising cancer risks, come from our love of keeping our bottoms glued to our chairs. In fact, recent research has found that people who sit for more than eight hours a day, with no physical activity, have a risk of dying that’s comparable to obesity and smoking

What’s wrong with sitting down for prolonged periods?

People who sit for more than 10 hours a day are at considerably higher risk of heart attack and strokes, compared to those who sit for five or fewer hours a day. There are a number of reasons for this, including:

●      Lower metabolism and quicker weight gain - When you don’t move around too often, your body doesn’t burn all the carbs, fats, sugars, etc. that you’ve eaten over the day. While just doing this for a few days won’t have much effect, many Singaporeans sit all day in the office, year-in and year-out. Over time, this sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even stroke.

●      Muscles will atrophy from disuse - When you don’t use your leg muscles, they will weaken over time. This can lead to other injury risks; such as when the strain is transferred from your weakened legs to your back or hips. Over the long term, it can even lead to dangerous curvatures of the spine (which can cause hernias).

●      Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) - This is one of the most dangerous conditions that can result from prolonged sitting; and it’s why we’re often warned to get up and walk on long flights. DVT can occur when a blood clot forms from prolonged sitting. If the blood clot later blocks the heart, it can result in a heart attack, stroke, or death.

●      Prolonged sitting can raise cancer risk, just like smoking - Studies have found that, for every 30 minutes someone exercises instead of continuing to sit, their risk of death by cancer can fall by as much as 31 per cent. Even spending 10 minutes doing housework, instead of sitting, reduced the likelihood of cancer death by eight per cent.

But I have to sit to do my job!

This is a common protest, but is it really true? In most offices, bosses might allow you to request a standing desk (e.g., working while standing at the pantry counter). Research has shown that employees who do this show improved health.

But of course, it’s quite uncomfortable to switch from sitting for several hours, to standing for several hours right away. You should try to pace yourself: in the first week, alternate between using your standing desk and sitting, every hour.

As your legs and back muscles rediscover their strength, you’ll need to spend fewer hours sitting each day.

Use your smartphone to alert you to prolonged sitting

Whenever you’re about to sit to work, set your smartphone alarm to go off every 20 to 30 minutes. Everytime you hear this alarm, it’s your cue to get up and go for a short walk (five minutes of walking should suffice).

As you get used to standing, you’ll find you need the alarm less and less.

This should also be done on long trips, such as cramped economy-class flights. Avoid the risk of blood clots forming, by getting up and stretching or strolling.

Oh, and remember how your parents used to tell you to stop shaking your leg? You can feel free to ignore. Fidgeting helps to maintain circulation, and eases some of the physical stress of prolonged sitting. Be careful not to annoy your colleagues though!

Don’t schedule long meetings back-to-back

If you must attend meetings that go on for hours, try not to schedule them all on the same day, or back-to-back. While it’s great to get them all out of the way at once, you’ll end up harming yourself by sitting down for so long.

If your colleagues will tolerate it, consider a standing meeting (literally just standing around a pantry table or something, instead of sitting down). Not only is this healthier, it can lead to shorter meetings; especially if your colleagues are not used to standing so much.

In some office cultures, there’s also a tendency to snack and eat when sitting down at long meetings. This indirectly leads to weight gain, and conditions like high blood sugar.

Now that we know how unhealthy prolonged sitting can be, it’s time to make a change. Get up and move while in the office, and try to gradually shave off your sitting time till it’s less than five hours a day.

Being healthier will also benefit you financially: when you don’t have conditions such as diabetes, obesity, etc.,  it’s easier to obtain coverage under life insurance. Make sure you are covered under a critical illness plan. 

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