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How Sitting Ruins the Body (And What You Can Do to Fix It)

By Joey Held February 18th, 2015

It’s difficult to imagine sitting as a full-body experience, but that’s exactly what it is. Unfortunately for those of us who spend our workdays sitting—which is most of us—that experience can be very detrimental to our health.

As freelancers, long hours of sitting are common. Whether we’re typing pitches or finishing up an article before deadline, our butt and seat are as inseparable as our profession and the crippling anxiety over when those invoices are going to come through. And that act of sitting can have painful effects on the whole body, not just those creaky knees or tight hips.

Luckily, there are ways to remedy sitting’s ruinous effects. To start, you should probably go ahead and stand up while you read this—and by the end, you may never want to sit again.

The brain suffers

When we move our muscles, fresh blood and oxygen pump throughout the body, which activates a number of chemicals that enhance both the brain and our general mood. But when we’re sedentary, our brain function starts to slow.

A Michigan State University study found that college students who were less fit (thanks to sitting around more often) had a harder time retaining information than their more physically active classmates. Long-term information, which is anything from more than 30 seconds ago, was more difficult for the lower-fit individuals to remember.

The back curves

Most of us who sit in a chair all day know back pain. A lot of us are probably feeling it right now and thinking of straightening our posture until we forget and inevitably return to slouching when we get caught up with work.

We’re also likely to lean forward while we sit, especially when typing or reading off a computer screen. Leaning forward causes strain on the neck, which in turn overextends the shoulders. Similarly, if we’re doing a telephone interview, cradling the phone between the chin and neck while taking notes also leads to strain.

Moving around allows soft discs between vertebrae to expand and contract naturally, soaking up fresh blood and nutrients. While walking or running gets the muscles working, simply standing up also does the trick. In fact, exercise researcher Gretchen Reynolds found that just standing up every 20 minutes—even if you do nothing else—changes how the body responds physiologically. Sitting, however, causes discs in the back to become squashed unevenly. When that happens, collagen hardens around ligaments and tendons, making your spine less flexible.

And because all of that weight is distributed on just the tuberosity of the ischium (a.k.a. the “sitting bones”), instead of throughout the entire spine, chronic sitters are more at risk for herniated lumbar discs, which occur 15 times more often than cervical hernias. They’re the most common type of lower back pain, according to Medical News Today.

The lower body tightens

This “uneven” balance continues down the body, into the hips and legs. Flexible hips help with balance, and hip flexor muscles stiffen during long periods of sitting. And after extended abuse, this can significantly limit mobility.

In addition to your hip flexors shortening, your glutes—the biggest muscle group in your body—weaken when you don’t move around. Both your hip flexors and glutes are crucial in activating your hips, which are designed to generate lots of power. Unfortunately, if your hip flexors and glutes are at minimal strength, your lower back has to do the dirty work. And as those of you who pop Aleve like Tic Tacs know, the lower back is not meant for dirty work; it’s mostly just there as a support base.

Additionally, those who sit too much have poor circulation in their legs, which can lead to varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis. An Indiana University study found that even just one hour of sitting can impair normal blood flow by up to 50 percent. When we walk or run, we’re using the bones in our lower body, making them stronger and denser. While sitting, the bones become softer, which is a leading cause for osteoporosis.

The organs slow down

Heart disease is an alarming risk for frequent sitters. According to Martha Grogan, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, people who sit most of the day have about the same chance of suffering from heart disease as smokers.

But cardiovascular problems aren’t the only worry; sitting has been linked to several kinds of cancer. A University of Regensburg study in Germany examined nearly 70,000 cancer cases and discovered that sitting too long is associated with a 21 percent increased risk of lung cancer, a 24 percent increased risk of colon cancer, and a 32 percent increased risk of endometrial cancer.

If that isn’t enough, something else to watch out for is diabetes. Regardless of whether you’re sitting, standing, lying down, or imitating your favorite superhero by flying across a city, your pancreas produces insulin. Insulin carries glucose to cells to provide energy. Those cells are at rest while sitting, and their response to insulin declines. It takes more energy for your cells to break down the sugar—energy that isn’t necessarily replenished by the glucose it’s working on. If those cells wear down enough, the risk of getting Type 2 Diabetes doubles.

Good posture saves our health

For those of us who sit a ton at work (i.e. just about everyone), there are things we can do to mitigate the effects on our health. Having quality posture isn’t just crucial for your body—it helps your mind too.

Sitting upright produces more positive thoughts and memories, and a strong posture only increases confidence. In fact, a study by researchers at Columbia and Harvard determined that people in a “power” pose, with limbs spread out and the body opened up, feel more powerful, more in control, and are 45 percent more likely to make a risky decision. That one publication you haven’t contacted because you think you’re not ready yet? Sit up straight and work on that pitch.

Better posture will also alleviate the pressure you put on your neck and shoulders and will eliminate some wear and tear on your joints. Your lungs will also be able to take in more air, leading to easier breathing and less fatigue. That gives you more concentration to, say, finish that article with a quickly approaching deadline.

Of course, there isn’t really one universally accepted “best” posture. According to LUMO Body Tech, a company that specializes in devices that improve posture and overall health, the ideal position is a slightly reclining pose. Others, like the Laser Spine Institute, preach a slightly different approach, with your ears, shoulders and hips in a vertical line. Or, try keeping your feet planted flat on the ground and making sure your knees stay below your hips—that’s a good way to avoid slouching, according to EXOS.

A few things to avoid: sitting with your legs crossed for long periods of time, sitting with your legs in wildly different positions (for example, one leg on the ground and one resting up on a nearby chair), and of course, slouching.

Pair the quality methods of sitting with regular bouts of short activity—which can be as simple as getting up to refill your glass of water or taking the dog for a walk—and your body will thank you. And a thankful body should lead to a more productive career.

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