Wow, Sitting Is Way Worse for You Than You Thought

Man sitting in front of laptop
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

On the scale of "Modern Killers," sitting too much in an office job doesn't seem nearly as bad for you as antibiotic-resistant bacteria or sugar-laden processed foods. After all, sitting's not such a raw deal when there are bills to pay.  

And you can always find some time to stand up and stretch out, right? That's where things get worse: new findings suggest that you really shouldn't sit more than three measly hours in a day.

Really? Three hours is all you get?  

It's easy to hear the warnings about sitting "too long" and wonder what that even means. Well, that's what scientists are for: sitting for more than three hours a day leads to almost 4% of all deaths, which may not sound like much, but is significant considering you're usually under no other risk when you're sitting around at your desk or on your couch.

On the flip side, experts say reducing your sitting time to less than three hours increases your life expectancy by an average 2.4 months. So you better start planning all the additional boxes you can check off your bucket list with that extra 2.4 months!

"Obviously, don't get yourself fired for tooling around when you're supposed to be at a desk, but at break time and on lunch break, try to walk a little," says Dr. Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon. "Take a walk in the evenings. It's good for the mind and the soul."

Business man slouched in front of computer

But is it really the sitting that's killing you?

Death by sitting may seem extreme, so experts point to elevated health risks related to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular issues, dementia, depression, plus back and pelvic pain. But doctors also recognize that sitting might not be the only medical offender at play here. 

"While the [study's] conclusions fall in line with previously published studies, [there's still] the question of whether sitting itself is the true culprit for increased mortality and health problems or rather a consequence," urologist Dr. Mehran Movassaghi notes. "One can argue obese people are more likely to sit and lead a sedentary lifestyle. This in turn leads to heart disease and other health problems."

Man at standing desk

OK, I'm on my feet. Will I live forever now?

The co-worker who swapped out her chair for a fitness ball? She may be on the right track, but it's still unclear if alternative seats, standing desks, or even treadmill desks lead to longer lives.

"That might be a stretch, but I see many patients who are benefiting from the use of these items. Certainly having an option is good," says Dr. Bergin, who quickly adds that humans are not generally conditioned to stand in one spot for long periods of time, either.

Damned if you stand, damned if you sit. So the problem seems to be a lack of general movement more than anything else... which raises the question:

How do I move around if my job involves being still?

Dr. Movassaghi recommends making sure you sit in short spurts. "Breaking up sitting can reset some of the damage that accumulates when sitting for extended time periods."

What does this look like? You could stand up when you're talking on the phone, or set an alarm every hour to briskly walk back and forth across the office. You can also choose the stairs over the elevator, or park your car farther away in the lot. Just. Move. Around.

When you do have to sit, make sure you have proper back support. The back of the chair should be angled at a slight recline, and press against the lumbar spine. Your computer monitor should be positioned at eye level, because when the neck tilts it causes pressure on your spine.

"Bottom line: unless you have a medical condition which precludes walking, swimming, or cycling, you should make every attempt to be more active," stresses Dr. Bergin. "Walking is what humans do best! We’re hunter-gatherers by nature, and leisurely walking is what we're put together to do."

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Carson Quinn sat while writing this story... then got up and went for a jog. Follow her on Twitter: @NewsCarson.