What You’re Probably Doing Right Now That’s Killing You

Two New Bottles by Brother O' Mara

Not all things that kill you are so clearly labeled.

There’s something you’re doing that’s making your life shorter. This is something that most of our U.S. readers do on average for at least 11 hours each day. It’s even something that I would bet you’re probably doing right now as you read this. Ready for the big revelation? Are you sitting down? Well then stand back up because that’s what’s killing you – sitting.

Yes, you heard me right. The more you sit in a day the sooner you are likely to die.

The Slow Seated Death

So what’s the big deal? Can sitting really be killing me?

As it turns out, yes, it can. More and more studies are being done and they all confirm that, even after correcting for other lifestyle choices such as diet, physical activity and whether or not participants smoked, people who sat 11 hours or more per day were 40% more likely to die within the next three years than those who sat less than 4 hours per day.

Another study showed that those who sat for greater than 6 hours but still exercise were 37% more likely to die than those who spent less than 3 hours seated and exercised. When you compare the groups that exercise with sample groups who didn’t, you find the people who sat for 6 hours and didn’t exercise were 94% more likely to die and those who sat for 3 hours were 48% more likely to die than the group that sat the least and exercised.

For the statistically inclined the studies in question came up with P-values of <0.00001. For the non-statistically inclined this means that the correlation between sitting and increased mortality would not occur simply at random 99.999% of the time. In other words, the studies here are statistically significant. They also showed a strong dose-response association which means that the bigger the dose (the longer you sit) the bigger the response (the more likely you are to die).

Even more concerning is the fact that these studies indicate that the effect of exercise done around the long blocks of sitting don’t cause a very large statistical difference in the mortality rates for those who sit a lot. That means that while it’s still important to be exercising you can’t fully out-exercise the negative results of spending all day planted in a chair, at a desk or on the couch.

While it may not sound like a big deal compared to the increased chance of death, sitting all day also drastically stretches and extends your glutes (your butt muscles) and shortens and tightens your hip flexors (the muscles that you use to take a step forward).

When you place a muscle in its weakened, stretched position and leave it there for long periods of time the muscle itself becomes weaker and inactivated. That means it can’t produce as much force. Conversely, when you hold a muscle in a shortened position it becomes tight and overactive.

This imbalance in the force-couple relationship between your glutes and hip flexors causes a whole host of problems ranging from severely limiting your range of motion on exercises like the squat to causing the knee to bend medially to causing lower back pain and predisposing you to ACL tears. All of these are very bad.

Fixing The Problem

The first step in making this right is to recognize just how much you sit in a day. If you’re like the average office worker or student it’s probably a lot – particularly if you get home and chase it with couch time. The first step is going to be taking active measures to reduce the total time on your tush.

One of the ways to do that is to work at a standing desk. Now it should be noted that other studies have shown spending an excessive amount of time standing in one spot without moving around can be fairly detrimental to your health as well, so a standing desk is no panacea. As long as you recognize that you need to take occasional breaks to move around, stretch, walk some laps or do a little mobility work the standing desk will make a huge difference. Some people have even go so far as to create treadmill desks so they can walk slowly while they work.

If you’re not ready for that kind of change or don’t want to be the only person in your office with a weird desk, find some way to set a reminder to get up for at least 5 minutes every half hour. Set an alarm on your computer or watch or buy a $2 egg timer if you have to, but obey what it tells you and get up for 5 minutes twice every hour.

You don’t have to go sprint or anything, just getting up and walking around to break up the long blocks of sitting has been shown to have a real positive effect on people’s health.

Lastly, if you’re ready to start restoring power to your inactive glutes and stretching out those tight hip flexors start spending a few minutes each day in a proper squat stretch or indigenous squat and in the couch stretch. These two alone don’t take very long and when done for a few minutes daily will go a long way to correcting the mobility issues created by years of sitting. Doing some foam rolling on your glutes, TFL and adductors wouldn’t hurt either.

In our office we have a standing desk set up with three positions so that we can work standing, work while in a full squat or work sitting on the floor in full lotus or seiza. All these options, coupled with the fact that I’ve made hourly breaks an unbreakable habit, mean I’m never stuck in one position for too long and can still get all my work done.

All these are just some of the options for correcting the issues, the important thing is to be aware how profound of a negative effect being stuck in a chair all day can have and begin taking steps to fixing the problem. Have any other suggestions or a unique way you keep out of chairs all day? Share it with us in the comments, we’d love to hear it.

I’d also like to leave you with this infographic from Medical Billing and Coding because I think it sums everything up in a well-presented way.

How Sitting is Killing You

Photo Credit: Brother O’ Mara

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Jesse

    Scary thought, but very true.