We love to sit. We buy recliners for our homes, ergonomic chairs for the office and camp chairs for our kids' soccer games. Sitting feels good. The trouble arises when we sit too much. Humans evolved on the go. We aren't designed to sit eight, 10, 12 hours during the day. In fact, we evolved to be active during the day and rest at night, and many of our biological mechanisms are designed to support that lifestyle. So when we live contrary to our body's normal modes, there can be consequences.
A number of recent studies have outlined these consequences in a big way. A study in England showed that office workers who sat more than five hours a day had higher body mass indexes (BMIs) and felt a loss of mental well-being. Even more alarming, a massive study of 220,000 people in Australia found that people who sat more than 11 hours a day had a 40 percent greater chance of dying in the following three years, compared to those who sat for under four hours a day.
What's especially troubling about the last study is that regular exercise did not reduce the risk of premature death. It's very difficult to counter six million years of primate evolution. The body wants exercise at certain times and rest at others, and does not seem to respond well when we switch the order. In other words, we can no longer justify hours of inactivity with the excuse: "I'll just work out later."
There are other contributing factors to the high risks of sitting. It seems that sitting too long may be a "gateway drug" for other bad choices. For example, the people who sat for such prolonged periods were also eating high-fat foods and not drinking enough water. The office environment itself can be negative factor. Not having enough natural light affects our serotonin and melatonin levels, which in turn affect our immune and circulatory systems. Poor circulation can lead to deep vein thrombosis, or blood clots in the legs. This is especially dangerous when flying for long periods of time, as pressurized airplanes tend to exacerbate the problem.
So how do we process this information? You may respond by saying, "Great, now I can't even sit anymore." But that's not really the case. We know, for example, that meditation practitioners can sit for many hours a day, moving intermittently, but maintain significant health advantages. So it's not just a matter of sitting, but rather how we sit.
Offices, by their very nature, are stressful places. High stress increases the excretion of adrenal hormones, which over time degrade the immune system. Sitting just makes matters worse. Also, because the heart is working slower, the blood is not moving as fast, and the circulatory system can be compromised. Excess hormones are not being circulated and metabolized, a potentially dangerous cocktail.
On the other hand, let's move the sitting posture away from the office, with its stale air and minimal natural light, to a mountain with fresh air, abundant sunlight and plenty of fresh water. Under those circumstances, you could easily sit for 11 hours, taking frequent exercise breaks, and the experience would benefit both mind and body.
From my own experience, I know that meditative practice is profoundly beneficial -- lowering my blood pressure, improving a variety of other health markers and enhancing my sense of well-being. It's a healing practice. Though I am sitting, I am dedicating this posture to my own growth.
By simply making this change of context, sitting becomes a vehicle to heal ourselves. So we're finding that sitting is deeply interrelated with other lifestyle choices.
Overcoming the Negative Effects
Even if you have a desk job, there are still a number of measures you can take to control sitting's negative effects and ensure good health. The most important thing is to simply get up and walk around: every hour, every 45 minutes, every half an hour -- whatever is practical in your situation. Move around; get your blood flowing again, clear your head. If you have access to a couch, take advantage of it. It's great to lie down for a few minutes and lift your feet above your heart. Even one minute will make a difference.
During your lunch break, take a short walk, 15 minutes will do the trick. Walk before eating and then rest after eating, so you can dedicate enough circulation to digestion.
You should also be looking for supplements that aid circulation. I recommend a Tibetan formula, which incorporates botanical ingredients, such as costus root, neem fruit, cardamom fruit and others to aid circulation and immunity.
Medicinal mushrooms like Cordyceps, Reishi, shitake and oyster also boost circulation and immunity, as do specific enzymes, like nattokinase and lumbrokinase. These ingredients are not dissimilar to taking a baby aspirin to enhance cardiovascular health.
Attitude Is Everything
Good hydration, deep breathing and frequent movement can all help us overcome the effects of too much sitting. But embracing a good attitude is just as vital. There are a number of meditation practices that can help you make a significant difference.
Put a nice stone, or an inspiring message, on your desk. Every so often, stop and look at it for a few seconds or a minute. Let your eyes gaze at it softly and breathe, exhaling into it and inhaling from it. Simply concentrate on the object and your breathing.
By initiating this practice you can start to feel that sense of "ahhh," where everything starts to relax. It can take just 30 seconds of your time. When your meditation practice becomes more developed, then the heart opens up and prevents emotional stagnation. This kind of meditation can really benefit your heart and circulation. Indeed, it's important to remember, meditation has been proven to aid circulation, and is often done while sitting.
So remember, yes, sitting can be dangerous. But it's more than the act of sitting that's problematic; it's the environment and attitudes that go along with it. Mindful sitting can bring great benefits for our minds and bodies and can, in fact, heal.
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