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Estelle Underwood Headshot

Don't Just Sit There -- Take a Stand!

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We've all heard too many times that a sedentary lifestyle is hazardous to our health. Many of us who take the risks of this type of lifestyle seriously have incorporated a weekly, if not daily, exercise routine into our busy schedules. So we've got it covered, right? Wrong. Even if you engage in a routine workout program on a daily basis, but you sit for the greater part of the day, you are at risk.

I know, I'm always showing up with "good news," bursting your bubble about all your good health habits. But as you'll see, I do have good news, and it is crucial that you continue your regular workout routine. However, there is more that you can do to facilitate disease prevention and increase the quality of your life. First, let's understand the problem.

In large part due to technological advances and the Internet, we have become far more sedentary than generations before us. We live electronically -- that is, we pay bills, shop and many of us even do our jobs online. We have remote controls for everything -- televisions, garage doors, video games. Think of how many forms of entertainment you engage in that allow you to sit without ever standing up, which lead you to become physically inactive. Add to that the fact that we now use social media to visit with our families and friends, and you can just begin to see that we in large part live our lives sitting down -- not standing up. So all these advancements that we enjoy, making our lives easier, are in fact making us sick and potentially shortening our lifespan. Not desirable.

The problem is that as human beings, our bodies are designed to stand upright and to move. That's why we have bone joints -- you know, those areas of your body that seem to lock up and ache every morning when you try to get out of bed! They are meant to move. When we sit for prolonged periods of time, we put ourselves at risk for developing poor posture, knee pain, herniated discs and other back and neck problems. These are very common problems -- ones that I see in my fitness studio on a regular basis. I have a client who is a writer, working from home at her computer for much of the day. Last year she developed an extremely painful sciatica problem for which she is still undergoing physical therapy. Though she was facing the possibility of surgery, her condition has greatly improved as she has been routinely doing exercises to re-strengthen the muscles that became weak and could no longer support her spine after years of sitting. Most important, she is now setting a timer to go off at least every 20-30 minutes to remind her to get up from her chair -- a simple solution that could have spared her a lot of pain and medical expense had she done it sooner.

Biomechanical problems are not the only risk of sitting. According to Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri, prolonged sitting tends to slow down your metabolic system. Processes that break down metabolic sugars and fats in the blood are disrupted, wreaking havoc with our cholesterol levels. This is not news. We know that if we are sedentary for long periods of time, our muscles cease to move and circulation slows down, causing a decrease in the consumption of calories. The result is weight gain and an increase in body fat, which set us up for developing serious diseases. Dr. Hamilton tells us that the rates of cardiovascular heart disease, diabetes and obesity are doubled or sometimes even tripled in people who sit a lot. I don't know about you, but these statistics frighten me!

In case all these health risks are not enough to get you out of your chair, consider this. In 2011, USA Today reported that more than 90,000 new cancer cases a year in the United States might be due to physical inactivity and prolonged periods of sitting. So now we can add cancer to that list of risks. This is getting really scary, don't you think? The good news is that we do have some control over this situation -- and the solutions are simpler than you might think.

Recently I was reading an article in the January-February 2012 issue of the AARP Bulletin, entitled "Sitting: Hazardous to Your Health." (By the way, you don't have to be THAT old to subscribe to AARP!) The article quoted Dr. Alpa Patel, senior epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society, as saying that "if you reduce sitting by five minutes an hour, at the end of a long day, you've shaved an hour of your total sitting time."

More research done by Neville Owen, Ph.D. of Australia's Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, suggests that the longer you sit, the higher your risk, but this risk can be significantly lowered by simply taking breaks from sitting for even one minute at a time. One minute at a time! That's not a lot. And all you actually have to do is stand up. That's right, even just standing up every 15 to 20 minutes will possibly decrease your risk of getting a life-threatening disease. And another benefit to standing is improvement of your HDL or good cholesterol levels. According to our friend Dr. Hamilton, people who sat too long reduced their good cholesterol levels by 22 percent! If that isn't incentive enough, I know this one will get your attention. Standing actually helps shrink your waistline. Dr. Hamilton reports that the average person can burn an extra 60 calories an hour just by standing! Sounds good to me.

Recently I heard about a woman who had a work desk built over her treadmill! This enables her to stand up and even walk slowly while she's on her computer, talking on the phone, etc. That may seem extreme, but it's one creative way of dealing with this problem. If you're not ready for that, think about getting a stability ball chair to replace your desk chair. I'm sitting on one now as I write this article. This is what we call "active sitting." My core muscles are forced to work to keep me on the ball. It also keeps me in alignment -- and I've got to tell you, it's much more comfortable than any desk chair I've ever had. By the way, in case you're wondering, I have stood up numerous times during the course of this writing.

Other suggestions I might make are to keep your printer in a different room than where your computer is so that you have to stand up to go get your document. Drink lots of water while you're working (which you should be doing anyway, right?) so that you have to go use the restroom frequently. Like my client with the sciatica problem, get yourself a timer and set it for every 15 to 20 minutes to remind you to stand up. The point is to arrange your life so that you shorten the periods of time in which you are sitting.

Hopefully, this information has captured your attention. You now have knowledge and tools to be proactive in the prevention of disease and discomfort. So continue on with those daily exercise routines, but remember that's not enough. "Stand up" and fight for good health, quality of life and longevity! You deserve nothing less.

For more by Estelle Underwood, click here.

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