How Bad Is Sitting For Your Health & Fitness?

Important: This article is NOT an attempt to diagnose, or help to cure injuries!


If you have any injury... seek advice from a physio or otherwise appropriately qualified professional!


 
Sitting posture

Right now...


While you're reading this article...


There is a high probability that you are sitting down.


You might be at home, or work, sitting at your desk, in front of a computer...


Sitting on a train reading on your phone...


Or simply sitting comfortably, with a coffee, on a break.


There will then all of the other times during the day where you sit to do other things...


Working, eating, driving, watching TV etc...


This helps to illustrate how much of your day is spent sitting down.




The Problem With The Chair...


In the grand scheme of human evolution, chairs / comfortable seats were invented very recently.


The human body had of course, pretty much fully evolved (relative to how we function now) long before then.


Every now and then, people probably sat on rocks etc...


But only if they just happened to be in the right place (they obviously had no way of moving big rocks from where they were found).


But overall, they probably spent far more time sitting on the floor, or simply standing.


(Sitting on the floor is of course very different to a chair... Think about the difference in posture between the two sitting positions... How much more do you fidget around due to discomfort, which muscles are engaged, relaxed, or stretched?)


And as with any behaviour or physical movement that we performed for thousands / millions of years...


The human body evolved to suit that habit.


In other words, evolution has not yet had time to adapt to chairs.


Regardless of how comfortable they are (or seem to be).


(Side note: As a result of regularly sitting on the floor, and therefore regularly getting up from the floor, everybody would have easily had the mobility to squat down to the ground, and stay there, to either work on the ground or simply sit. On top of that, there would have been very little difficulty standing up without struggling / grabbing nearby objects for leverage / groaning in discomfort, as so many people do today).


Sitting in a squat position requires strong, flexible muscles and strong, mobile joints. .
A healthy, strong, mobile body is well suited to sitting in a squat position. Our modern lives (including excessive sitting in chairs) gradually remove our ability to do this.

This obviously does not reflect modern life.


When a chair is available, of course you are going to sit there, rather than the floor.


Especially in most social situations...


In most cases, you don't really have the choice.


But it's worth thinking about how many hours you really spend sat down on a typical day.


Like most (bad) habits, you probably do it a lot more than you realise, as most situations are going to be a natural part of your routine... you are not going to consciously think about them, or even notice that you are doing it.



A Typical Day...


Imagine the typical daily routine.


It's a likely worst case scenario...


But again, most people won't be aware of their habits until they are encouraged to consciously think about them.


  • Wake-up... go to the bathroom... make breakfast/coffee... and sit down to eat/drink

  • Catch up on the news (watching TV, reading a newspaper, scroll through social media etc)... while sitting (perhaps for even longer at the weekend?)

  • Drive / commute to work (while sitting - for some reason, we feel entitled to get a seat on tubes / trains?! Can you stand safely?)

  • Arrive at work... sit at your desk for most / all of the next 8 hours+

  • Including breaks (sitting while eating / drinking)

  • Drive / commute home again

  • Get in and sit down to 'relax'

  • Eat (sitting down)

  • 'Wind-down' (Sitting down in front of the TV)

  • Go to bed, sleep, wake-up and repeat.



To be clear, these are not (all) criticisms...


Obviously there are many examples here where you need to / should sit.


But maybe not all...


And the point is to look at your own routine.


And then...


a) identify whether or not you might be sitting too much

b) identify the areas where you could possibly reduce the time that you spend sitting (eg. who says that you should always be rushing to get a seat on the train?)




Sedentary Lifestyle vs Active Lifestyle


So why do you need to think about the amount of time that you spend sitting?


Starting with the obvious...


If you're sitting...


Then you're not moving.


So you're not burning any calories (above those that you need to burn to stay alive).


Regardless of whether or not you "train" regularly...


If you are trying to achieve a calorie deficit...


You are potentially leaving a lot of progress on the table by falling into the easy trap of a sedentary lifestyle!





Posture & Bad Habits...


If you are sitting currently...


Pay attention to your current posture...


Are you sitting perfectly upright?


Is the position of your head and neck where it should be?


(Especially unlikely if you are reading on your phone!)


If your hands are in front of you, are you hunching your shoulders?


Is your lower back supported?


You might correct your posture now, after I've forced you to consciously think about it.


But in 5 minutes, you'll almost certainly be back to where you were naturally a few seconds ago.


And this may be a position that you are then going to spend much of the day in.


As you know, this is going to lead (if it hasn't already) to permanent issues...


  • neck pain

  • shoulder pain

  • lower back pain

  • long-term posture changes


And the subtle, but significant, changes in your posture will significantly increase the risk of other injuries when you do start to move suddenly or more than usual (eg. exercise).


Laptop, phone, work
Pay attention to your posture whenever sitting... especially when working on laptops or using your phone!



Muscle Weaknesses...


When you're sitting, apart from the fact that you are probably not in the ideal position, your body is relatively relaxed.


That's probably why you chose to sit in the first place.


And that's fair enough... most of the time.


Nobody expects you to eat or watch TV standing up (although you could?).


But as you relax, your muscles relax.


They do not need to contract to stabilise your body as you no longer need to balance or support your own weight.


And that's fine... they don't need to be constantly working.


But modern life allows / encourages us to take this to the extreme (remember the example of the 'typical day' above).


If you spend MOST of the day sitting and relaxing...


And barely any time at all standing, walking etc...


Those muscles will be relaxed for the majority of the time.


This leads to your muscles losing 'tone'.


*'Muscle tone' in this sense, is not the same as "toning up at the gym".


Muscle tone, is the "residual tension of muscle at rest"...


This is important for several reasons...


  • maintaining correct posture

  • activating / being able to properly contract muscles during exercise

  • metabolic health (muscle is one of the most important factors that determine your metabolic rate)

  • maintaining muscle mass and strength (the principle of "use it or lose it" is especially important to remember as we get older - we typically lose muscle with age... even at the best of times with proper exercise and nutrition)


So not only do you potentially harm your posture directly WHILE sitting, but you then weaken the muscles that supposedly maintain and correct your posture when standing, walking, running, lifting weights and every other scenario that you can imagine.


Example:


Let's assume that you do sit 'correctly'...


Perfect posture etc...


The back of the chair supports the weight of your upper body. Preventing you from falling over.


That means your core muscles (abs, obliques, lower back muscles etc)...


Get a chance to switch off and completely relax.


(Again, for relatively brief periods of time... no problem).


But if you start to lose strength / muscle tone in those key muscles...


That stability, when you are standing, walking, running, lifting... is at risk.


In most cases, you're not suddenly going to start falling over...


But more often that not, it will be your lower back that takes the strain instead of the ideal supportive muscles.


And that is a large part of the reason why lower back injuries / lower back pain is so common.


In fact, according to the NHS, the cost of treating lower back pain in the UK, exceeds £1 BILLION per year!



Muscle Tightness...


When you sit you create flexion at the hip joint...


Your knees are raised in front of you.


If you were to raise your knees in this way against gravity, while standing, you would contract (shorten) the hip-flexor muscles.


If you are sitting for a long time, those muscles may become tight.


Simply because they are;


a) not being used/moved

b) not getting a chance to relax/stretch back into their neutral position.


Severe hip-flexor tightness makes it difficult / uncomfortable / painful when you need to stand up straight or move in an upright position (walking, running etc).


You may be familiar with the feeling if you spend a lot of hours sitting at work and then try to go for a run after work without properly warming-up.


(Note: This is just one possible cause of hip-flexor pain... not the only possible cause!)


Although in reality, most people with tight hip-flexors won't know about it. Until you get pain / injury, your body will simply 'adapt'. Although that adaptation may prevent short term suffering in the hip-flexors themselves, it is this adaptation that potentially causes more significant problems downstream.


This occurs in other muscles too...


Think about the muscles that may be shortening or contracting to move you into the position that you find yourself in...


  • Shoulders rounded forward, especially when typing or holding your phone

  • Shoulders also raised (again mainly when typing - hands raised in front of the body.. Plus the fact that stress commonly adds to tension in the neck and upper back!)

  • Head bent forwards

  • Upper body leaning forward towrd the screen

  • And many more...



Yoga class, stretching, flexibility, fitness
Yoga and regular stretching help to prevent tight muscles caused by excessive sitting



A Roadmap To Counter-Act Sitting...



1. Reduce sitting time in the first place, wherever possible...


If you sit less, you automatically reduce the time that you spend in tightness / weakness inducing positions, and you automatically become more active. Even if you are simply standing, rather than, sitting, you are engaging A LOT more muscle mass for stabilising and balancing (again... do you need to sit on short train / bus journeys? Unless you need to sit for safety reasons, consider spending short journeys standing?)


Plus, you are burning more energy as a side effect. Considering that we live in a nation which is steadily becoming more overweight and obese (as a percentage of the adult population classified as such), that would be a very useful bonus if somehow applied nationwide.


This could be as simple as scheduling regular breaks. As patronising as it sounds, it helps to write a schedule down and set reminders / alarms to make sure that you adhere to it. Good intentions only go so far if there is no structure in place to actually implement them!


Minimum requirement - stand up after an hour or so, allow your body to return to it's neutral posture.


Ideally - add some movement... walking, deliberate mobility work around the affected joints. Be careful if you want to stretch... sitting still is pretty much the worst way you could possibly prepare your muscles for stretching... they will be cold, and probably tight. Focus on movement to get the warmth and mobility back first (see stretching notes below).


Secondly, seriously consider a standing desk. This would remove the need to consciously think about how you are going to reduce your sitting time. Yes it might seem OTT when you first think about it... but as I pointed out earlier, your sitting time at work probably represents more than 50% of your total sitting time on a typical day! If that applies to you, this is the single biggest change that you could make!



2. Schedule Stretch Breaks...


If you must sit...


Counter the negative effects with regular stretching.


Think about the muscles that are most likely to tighten in a sitting position (generally... the front of your body)...


  • the hip flexors

  • chest

  • front of the shoulders (rounding of the shoulders forwards)


As we said earlier, stretching properly warmed-up muscles would be far more preferable than stretching cold, sleepy muscles. Get moving for 5-10 minutes first if you can.


When you do stretch... follow the usual rules;


  • stretch slowly to the point of mild discomfort

  • if you feel pain, relax a little (stretches should not hurt... ever!)

  • don't force your muscles to reach a point that you know / think you can / should usually reach. For example, just because you can reach your toes after a full workout (when you are fully warmed-up), does not mean that you should be able to do so after sitting in a desk chair for 60 minutes plus. Do not try to force the stretch!


(Side note: Tight muscles can cause pain / discomfort in the muscle itself. However, it may alternatively cause symptoms in other muscles which can cause confusion regarding which areas are actually causing the problem. For example, as the body adapts to tight hip-flexors, this can cause a lengthening of the glute (bum) muscles to compensate for that tightness. This in turn can contribute to lower back pain, which may be the first symptom that you actually notice. It's easy to assume then that you have a tight / weak lower back. You probably do at this point. But the initial trigger (in this hypothetical example at least), was the tighteting of the hip-flexors. Similarly, you may not notice that you are gradually rounding your shoulders forward. The first sign of trouble, that you are aware of, might be neck or upper back pain. Again, common sense, unless you know otherwise, would NOT cause you to suspect that the actual cause is in the FRONT of the shoulders. The point is, if you are stretching in an attempt to relive pain, consider that the problem may not necessarily be reflected simply by the symptoms that you can feel. The route cause can be a little more complicated.



3. Replace Your Chair


You obviously can't eliminate all sitting.


(And it probably wouldn't be a good idea even if you could).


But you can be a bit creative with your sitting.


Consider replacing desk chairs with gym balls (good for your core / posture and balance).


Not only would you avoid some of the problems mentioned above, the extra demand on your muscles (for balance) would add to your overall calorie burn for the day... very useful if you are aiming for a calorie deficit for fat / weight loss!



 

When you add up the number of hours that you spend sitting on a typical day, you will realise that this accounts for the majority of your day (average person - obviously this would vary depending on job type, lifestyle etc).


In excess, sitting is not ideal...


  • lack of movement

  • posture problems

  • weakening of muscles

  • tightening of muscles

  • and injury risk


... are just some of the potential side-effects.


While it might first seem like a small thing to worry about...


Simply due to the amount of time that you can make an impact on, effective changes to the amount / or the way that you sit throughout the day, can make a very significant difference to your overall health, fitness and wellbeing!


 

Important: This article is NOT an attempt to diagnose, or help to cure injuries!

If you have any injury... seek advice from a physio or otherwise appropriately qualified professional!