Is sitting down the new smoking? Experts reveal the health risks

And squeezing in a workout won't mitigate the damage ...

If sitting really is the new smoking then I am a sitting duck.

On the scale of daily activity I’m inching towards inert.

I sit on my 90-minute commute to write emails. I sit through meetings. I sit to research.

I sit to write (in my defence, standing puts my derriere in awkward view of anyone who happens to glance up in our open-plan office). And after sitting down for dinner, I flop on the couch.

The stats on what this king-sized dose of inactivity does to your health make me increasingly uneasy – one US study found that women and men who sit more than six hours a day are, respectively, 37 per cent and 18 per cent more likely to die before people who sit less than three hours a day.

What’s interesting is that squeezing in a workout didn’t make much difference.

Sitting is increasingly recognised as a mortal sin for one reason: Our bodies are hardwired to move.

We’re not talking hardcore spin class moves – though props to you if you’re making the effort – but the lifting, bending, crouching, walking, reaching, pushing, everyday action kind.

According to Dr Kelly Starrett and Juliet Starrett, co-authors of Built To Move, regular everyday movements, including walking, are what keeps everything from our joints to our digestive system in good nick.

And therein lies the good news – you don’t need to exercise madly to be ‘active’, you just need to break bouts of sitting with more movement.

“Kelly and I are exercisers and we do it for fun, but we have really come to think of exercise as an extracurricular hobby,” says Juliet.

“It’s nice to have but it’s really something to be done in addition to basic movement practices. Ultimately, to be a healthy human is to keep an eye on sleep, your range of motion, walking, and generally moving enough throughout the day.”

“Fitness is nearly a trillion-dollar industry but how is that working?” Dr Starrett chimes in.

“Look at any of the data on diabetes, obesity, chronic pain, surgeries … maybe one hour of intensive exercise class is not working enough for most of us to solve the problems of the human condition. We have to separate movement, care and the feeding of our bodies from exercising.”

By that he means changing the way you use your body in daily life – lug your shopping home; if you have to drive, park further away; stand while you work (or at least get up regularly); do the chores that force you to squat and lift and reach; go for a walk.

All the small things it’s easy to opt out of without even realising it.

“We are a society that drives to the gym, has our groceries delivered and logs more screen time than even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in their wildest dreams could have imagined,” says Juliet.

“We’re not loading our bodies with the bone and tissue-enriching weight those groceries might offer and we are keeping our spines, shoulders, hips and knees locked in unnatural positions for hours on end.”

The consequences of fighting nature are tangible: Sitting causes your hip flexor muscles to shorten and your long back muscles to tighten in order to keep you stable.

If you’re seated for too long, your brain gets used to keeping the muscles in that stiffened position.

According to a recent University of Sydney study, back pain cases are expected to increase 36 per cent by 2050 and some of the most common solutions, including surgery and pain killers, are not proven to be very effective.

So, could we potentially dodge that dire prediction by just sitting less? According to Dr Starrett, using our bodies as they were intended is more than a mobility workout, it also makes us more resilient to common aches and pains.

“Part of the problem is our fundamentally poor relationship with pain these days, as we have moved away from radical discomfort. The research is clear that oftentimes there can be no changes in our tissue, no overt trauma, but we can still experience pain and discomfort for a whole lot of reasons… pain is a complex and personal phenomena,” says Dr Starrett.

“It turns out that when we start to control movement, sleep, stress, range of motion and micronutrients, oftentimes the body becomes a lot less sensitive to the common aches and pains that send us scrambling for the doctor.”

Improving your range of motion is a simple way to claw back some of that bygone hardiness, something that Juliet says you are more likely to do if you create a movement-rich environment.

That can be as simple as placing a foam roller and fascia ball at hand near the couch to help ease tension or aching muscles at the end of the day.

“It’s like compounding interest. If you spend 10 minutes in the evening working on stiff or achy parts, that’s 70 minutes a week, which compounds to a massive amount of work and care on your soft tissue,” says Juliet.

Sitting is an occupational hazard for many of us, but I can vouch for how surprisingly easy it is to make small changes.

It’s no great stretch to get up every 30 minutes at work (studies show it makes you more productive because it boosts blood flow to the brain) or to watch TV sitting cross legged on the floor (AKA ‘rewilding’ your hips).

Walking to the shops is a simple way to get your steps up and offers the added potential delight of bumping into neighbours (thanks for the bountiful garden produce, Maria!).

I’ve even discovered a do-good sense of satisfaction creeping into otherwise dull household chores.

Besides, all that extra movement makes my reward – sitting down to binge on a book – all the more delicious.

Don’t judge me too harshly. I do get up to make a cup of tea between chapters.

Test your skill: How well do you move?

Sit and rise test

THE RESEARCH SAYS: Not being able to get up and down off the floor without assistance is associated with a greater risk of death.

DO IT LIKE THIS: Stand next to a wall or piece of furniture if you need support. Cross one foot in front of the other and sit down into a cross-legged position without holding on to anything (unless very unsteady). Try rising from that position without using your hands. Test daily to monitor improvement.

IMPROVE YOUR RESULT: Sit on the floor to watch TV as this will also help to ‘rewild’ your hip joints.

The flamingo test

THE RESEARCH SAYS: Falls are a leading cause of unintentional injury, particularly for over-65s, and balance is a strong indicator of overall health.

DO IT LIKE THIS: Stand barefoot on the floor in an open, uncluttered space. Close your eyes, bend one leg and raise your foot as high as is comfortable. Count to 20. If you need to put your foot on the floor for steadiness three or more times, your balance needs work.

IMPROVE YOUR RESULT: Try putting on shoes every day while balancing on one leg. Riding a bike is also great for balance.

Floor-sit and squat test

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Squatting can reduce your chance of arthritic hip pain by up to 90 per cent.

DO IT LIKE THIS: Stand straight with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your knees and lower your bottom (ideally until it’s a few inches above the floor), keeping your feet straight and your weight balanced between your heels and the balls of your feet.

IMPROVE YOUR RESULT: Do it daily because it’s good for your joints and practice helps you master this move.

Breath hold test

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Effective breathing improves sleep and can help treat pain.

DO IT LIKE THIS: Inhale and exhale normally, then pinch nostrils shut. Hold your breath until you feel you must breathe. Note the time from when you clamped and unclamped your nose.

IMPROVE YOUR RESULT: Practise daily, as anything below 10 seconds means your CO2 tolerance is way below normal (30-40 seconds).

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