‘Sitting disease’

Is sitting a health hazard? How can desk-bound office employees make their workdays more ‘active?’

Jason Powers, MD
Jason Powers, MD

Jason Powers, MD, a physician at UI Health Care-North Liberty, answers the question.

“Sitting is the ‘New Smoking.’” You’ve perhaps seen this headline over the past few months, as news reports have focused on the health risks of prolonged inactivity, sometimes referred to as “sitting disease.” New research presented at the American Institute for Cancer Research annual meeting in November 2011, for example, suggests that sitting for long periods may be an underestimated risk factor for cancer—even for people who exercise regularly.

It’s no secret that our work and social lives are increasingly automated and device-driven. For many people, hours spent each day sitting at an office workstation are followed by hours in front of the home computer or TV.  We’ve become stuck in our chairs, and that’s troubling. A lack of physical activity can lead to obesity, hypertension, and high cholesterol, which can cause diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

The key is to move more and sit less. Even standing helps—you’ll boost your metabolism and burn more calories on your feet than in your chair.

Ask the Expert imageIf you are one of the millions of Americans who spends hours sitting at a desk, consider adding physical activity to your workday. If you take a lunch hour, go on a brisk walk for 15 to 20 minutes. If you don’t have time for an extended break, try these options:

  • Walk or bike to work.
  • Increase your footsteps. If you drive to the office, park farther away from the door to your building. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Go see a colleague in person rather than send a lengthy email.
  • Stand during phone calls, or take five minutes every hour to stand up and stretch.
  • While seated, try at-your-desk exercises—heel lifts, toe lifts, thigh and buttock “squeezes,” arms-over-the-head stretches, and head rotations to gently stretch the neck, for example. These will help prevent muscle stiffness and alleviate stress.
  • Replace your desk chair with an exercise ball, or consider an adjustable desk that allows you to stand while working.

While not directly related to physical activity, ergonomics is another important consideration. Proper positioning of computer monitors and keyboards, desks, and chairs can help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, eye strain, and neck, shoulder, and low back pain. Some companies have their own specialists on staff to provide ergonomics assessments for their employees, while other businesses contract for these services. UI HealthWorks, located at Health Care-North Liberty, offers a variety of programs to improve the health and wellness of workers.

Please note that the suggestions I’ve listed do not minimize nor replace the importance of getting regular exercise, eating a nutritious diet, and a maintaining a healthy weight. But by focusing on ways to “break up” a long day sitting at your desk, you’ll feel better, be healthier, and stay productive.

–Spring/Summer 2012