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Simple exercises to counteract sitting all day

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With sitting often described as ‘the new smoking,’ the effects of sitting for a large portion of our time are being revealed as a major blow to our overall physical and mental health.

Simply going to a gym, pool, yoga studio, spin class or climbing wall every so often is not the answer – we need to move more throughout each day. In fact, one study reported that it could be possible to increase your life expectancy by a full two years by reducing the average time you spend sitting down to less than three hours a day.1

This means that to reduce the risk of chronic disease, not only must we increase the amount of time we spend in our most natural movement pattern, which of course is walking, but we also need to get up regularly and move away from the chair or sofa itself – whether that means taking a stroll, standing and moving as you naturally feel, or simply performing the small movement sequences described here.

It all helps, as long as the movement is performed periodically throughout the day to break up long periods of sitting.

Data from 2004 showed that the most common uses of energy in an average American’s day as a percentage of total energy expenditure (since even sitting burns some energy) were driving a car (10.9 percent), office work (9.2 percent), watching television or a movie (8.6 percent), performing various activities while sitting quietly (5.8 percent), eating (5.3 percent) and talking to someone in person or over the phone (3.8 percent).2

These statistics were cited in a 2012 review implicating sedentary behavior as a predictor of cardiovascular disease.3 Taking the findings together, we can see that if we sit at work, then sitting more in our leisure time compounds the issue, and a good first obvious solution is to get out of your car whenever possible and start walking.

The risks of sitting

Many of the studies around sedentary lifestyles have looked at the implication for heart and metabolic health, with findings showing that those who sit for the most time daily are more than twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sit the least.4 Prolonged sitting adversely affects glucose metabolism, linked to an incredible 90 percent increase in the risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as increased risk of death from any cause.5

These factors are associated with increased risk of cancers, too. The biochemical changes associated with weight gain, such as changes in hormones like leptin, which regulates appetite and fat storage, metabolic dysfunction as seen with diabetes and prediabetes, and inflammation, are all known to promote cancer. A 2013 survey of 5,380 women and 5,788 men in England and Scotland found that sitting occupations were associated with increased risk of all-cause and cancer deaths in women, particularly hormone-related cancers such as ovarian, uterine and breast cancer.6

Offsetting the deeply negative effects of a seated lifestyles is not simply a question of going to the gym every so often. We are built to move; it is not just something we can do, but that we must do for normal baseline function of all body systems and range of motion.

These are not separate things – our brain function, responses, mental health and expression are all tied in to how we move. For instance, sitting with light- to moderate-intensity breaks is known to significantly reduce glucose and insulin levels, thus reducing the risk for diabetes .7

The real issue that is so damaging is long bouts of sitting with no breaks. In fact, research comparing those who sit and do no exercise with those who sit for similar periods of time but do regular bouts of exercise shows the same increased risk for heart disease in both groups.

In 2017, a team of cardiologists studying data from more than 1,700 participants in the Dallas Heart Study, an ongoing research project that follows the cardiac health of an ethnically diverse group of men and women, reported that sitting for most of the day is linked to a build-up of troponins, proteins released by heart muscle cells when they are damaged or dying.8

Troponin levels were significantly higher in sedentary individuals than in those who engaged in frequent exercise, which was linked to healthy levels of the protein.

Another study looked at the links to energy levels and cognitive function.9 The effects of physical activity performed as one bout in the morning or micro-bouts of activity spread out across the day were each compared to a day spent sitting. The researchers concluded that: “In addition to the beneficial impact of physical activity on levels of energy and vigor, spreading out physical activity throughout the day improved mood, decreased feelings of fatigue and affected appetite.

“Introducing short bouts of activity during the workday of sedentary office workers is a promising approach to improve overall wellbeing at work without negatively impacting cognitive performance.”

Counteracting the effects of gravity

In the two sequences shown on the following pages, we focus on motions that ask us to support our weight off the ground in various ways.

After sitting for any period of time, the body sinks down with the effects of gravity. This is not unhealthy per se, but as a default position for a day, it prevents the continual movement, pulsing and gliding of fascia (connective tissue) that is a foundation of all body functions.

Varying movement from being on all-fours to a standing position enables us to move our bodies in different relationships with the ground and gravity. Our shift in the center changes the focus of how fluids move through the tissues and fascia, as well as how the muscles and joints respond.

These changes create a ‘eustress’ – a ‘good stress’ or healthy challenge – using the weight of our own body for weight-bearing, increasing circulation and encouraging lymphatic movement for immune, vascular and digestive system health.

On all fours, we exercise one of our first full-body motions – how we personally evolved from baby to toddler. With the spine freely suspended sideways, we can regain fluidity lost from holding our spine up vertically and rigidly at a desk.

If you have the space (and environment to not feel self-conscious), any crawling around the room – whether the softer knees-down or more active toes-tucked-under, knees off the ground version – offers the f
reedom to move in any way that feels right into the hips and shoulder joints, where lots of tension can build up from sitting.

When we come to standing, we come to our ‘grown-up’ stance, where we raise up through our unusual bipedal position. In its optimal alignment, this stance is supported up through the curves of our spine, but these curves can become distorted through long-term sitting. In particular, the lower back can become compressed and even flattened away from its naturally supportive inward curve.

The discs in our spines are designed to expand and contract as we move. This is an action that enables them to take in blood and nutrients and expel waste products, and it’s hindered through compression on sitting, which creates the loss of spinal motion, disc compression and even herniation – all common root causes of pain, as well as breathing, digestive and reproductive issues.

Our blood and lymphatic circulation rely on standing, and fluids tend to pool in the lower body without the motor effects and pump of the calf muscles helping them back up toward the heart and brain. Walking supports this pumping and encourages a figure-eight motion of the spine that creates pliability into the lower back.

The two sequences on the following pages can be done separately, as differing ways to punctuate sitting throughout the day, or both done in order for a longer routine. You can also perform separate movements as different elements to break up body patterns set in the seated position.



BMJ Open, 2012; 2 :e000828


Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 2004; 1: 4


Int J Epidemiol, 2012; 41: 1338-53


Diabetologia, 2012; 55: 2895-2905


Ann Intern Med, 2015; 162: 123-32


PLoS One, 2013; 8: e73753


Br J Sports Med, BJSM blog series, Jan 21, 2015


Circulation, 2017; 136: 1451-3


Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 2016; 13: 113

Article Topics: heart, muscle, obesity, sitting
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