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Our bodies were truly made to move, as evidenced by the pitfalls of prolonged sitting, which include weight gain, increased heart disease and diabetes risk, and much more.
But we’ve all got to make a living, so what’s the point of all the doom and gloom if nothing can be done about it?
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to offset the dangers of prolonged sitting, even while you’re working.
First, a closer look at the dangers, which go far beyond gaining a few pounds.
It doesn’t happen in a day, but over time, a sedentary lifestyle can negatively affect all your major organ systems.
Sitting for long periods of time without breaks can cause varicose veins, a slowed metabolism, hip flexor shortening, gluteal weakening, and potentially lethal blood clots (deep vein thrombosis).
The fluid that swishes around your joints to nourish and lubricate the bony surfaces stays pooled on one end of the joint space when you’re seated, contributing to joint pain and further discouraging standing, exercise, and mobility altogether.
Your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, and Alzheimer’s all increase with a sedentary lifestyle, and as early as weeks after you begin this lifestyle, you may engage in a vicious cycle of carb-rich food addiction.
On that particularly harmful note, this academic article from the National University of Health Sciences in Florida describes how “refined carbohydrates negatively impact metabolism and stimulate neural addiction mechanisms.”
The more weight you gain, the more resistant your brain’s “satiety centers” become to the hormones that promote feelings of fullness (insulin and leptin in particular), meaning you have to eat more to achieve the same feeling of fullness.
Taking a broader look at this problem, this study from Shiraz University of Medical Sciences in Shiraz, Iran, found that “For each two-hour increment in sitting time, the risk of obesity and diabetes increased by 5% and 7%, respectively.”
Alright, we get it—but what can we do about it?
We’ve all heard the obvious solution a thousand times: exercise and improve your diet.
But this blanket statement doesn’t reflect the reality of a sedentary worker and/or someone suddenly shut in by the pandemic; these groups have no choice but to remain sedentary (and in many cases, rely on pre-packaged food).
As such, you need ways of integrating healthy weight management into your day as a sedentary worker.
Since we’ve already established that sedentary working and/or living is closely connected to poor dietary habits, and not just activity level, we’re going to cover modifications in these two areas: sitting and eating.
The frequency at which you stand up is just as influential on long-term health, if not more, than the total amount of time you spend seated in an average day.
This important distinction was given a clearer outline by this Columbia University study, in which greater total sedentary time as well as “longer sedentary bout duration” were both associated with higher risk for all-cause mortality among 7985 adult participants.
As such, our number one tip for offsetting the damage of a sedentary lifestyle is to break up sitting bouts by standing up as often as possible.
Consistency is just as important in this department as the amount of time you spend standing at your desk.
To throw out a baseline, the University of Waterloo Kinesiology and Health Sciences Department recommends standing for at least 30 minutes every hour, so about half of your work day.
It’s important to assess “where you stand” currently on this spectrum and build up slowly, since going from zero standing breaks to 30+ minutes an hour immediately may actually cause or worsen low back pain and other orthopedic issues.
If you’re self-conscious about starting a distracting game of “cubicle whack-a-mole” on your large office floor, you can stand for longer intervals (10+ minutes instead of 5), and you can also use chair exercises to make the longer sitting bouts more tolerable.
These aren’t just for the old folks home; chair exercises can help to strengthen, stretch, and support your joints while keeping the blood pumping.
There are hundreds of stretches and exercises you can do in a chair—here are a few of the best hits for sedentary workers:
Trunk Rotation: Move forward on your chair, square up your shoulders, chest, and head to face ahead, and rotate your entire trunk left and right while keeping these three landmarks lined up with each other. You can do this while typing, but arms crossed high on the chest is best.
Seated March: Simply march in place while seated, making sure not to lurch your body to raise your legs. Don’t worry about bringing your knees up high; doing so could strain your hip flexors.
“Shoulder Press”: If you can raise your arms over your head without distracting others, lift them both up as if you’re performing an overhead shoulder press. You can also do the upper half of a jumping jack, aiming for sets of at least 15 in either case.
Heel Pumps: This is a really big deal for sedentary people, as prolonged seated positioning causes blood to pool in our legs and results in varicose veins. Simply lift your heels off the floor repeatedly, keeping the balls of your feet planted. This will help prevent the blood from pooling.
Chin Tucks: Try to touch your chin to your chest by bringing your head straight back (not looking down). This will prevent forward head posture, which can cascade into other issues that can affect your tolerance for standing.
Finally, it’s important to stretch your hip flexors at least once a day, as sitting causes this important muscle group to bunch up (and eventually, lose length).
On the other side of the body, the opposite issue is happening—our gluteal muscles are out to lunch while we sit, meaning they’re stretched out and inactive.
You can do bridges, squats, lunges, or even just isometric “butt squeezes” while sitting in your chair and typing to strengthen this neglected muscle group.
As mentioned, it’s no coincidence that your cravings for sugary and processed foods grow stronger as you remain sedentary.
Other than tampering with your brain’s satiety center, a sedentary lifestyle indirectly promotes overeating by simply distracting you so that you don’t realize how many calories you’re really taking in throughout any given work day.
Instead of plunging yourself needlessly into a brutal starvation diet, the experts recommend simply replacing the junk with nutrient-dense options, even if it means you’re still eating too many calories.
In what has to be the most tone-deaf analogy in the field of nutrition science, the National University of Health Sciences article referenced above recommends the following approach for ditching junk food:
“Overweight and obese patients need to be encouraged to eat in the fashion of the Paleolithic pigs; that is, patients should be urged to feel full by eating large amounts of low-calorie vegetation and adequate amounts of lean protein and natural fats, and make this their eating lifestyle.”
Terrible delivery aside, we do have to concede that this point is a sound one—it’s healthier (and more sustainable) to fill up on nutrient-dense food than to starve yourself so you can have smaller amounts of the same junk.
Finally, in Weight Management: State of the Science and Opportunities for Military Programs, a book by the Institute of Medicine Subcommittee on Military Weight Management, the authors make a number of important connections between eating and human behavior.
For example, they recommend scheduling your meals, doing nothing else while eating, consuming meals in the same place, shopping only from a list, and shopping on a full stomach for people trying to lose weight.
All of these recommendations are rooted in behavioral science principles that can greatly influence eating habits, which is why they’re helpful for improving consistency as you work to change said habits.
Thankfully, most of us can knock out at least half of the points on this list, even while at work.
If you still have to actively think about these methods months or years after adopting them, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
It takes between 18 to 254 days for most people to form a habit, according to this University College London study.
In other words, everyone is different in how and how quickly they program new and healthier ways of doing things into their routine, but in all cases, consistency is key.
If that means setting alarms to sit, stand, eat, get off the phone, and so on, then do it.
If the thought of regimenting your day around the chirping of an overpriced smartphone is terrifying, then you can force the right decisions onto yourself by only buying healthy food, parking far away from your office building, getting a standing desk, and so on.
Point being, if you can work the above methods into your routine in a way that conforms with your unique habit-forming tendencies, then you’ll have a much greater chance of locking in these habits and majorly improving your long-term health.
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