What Happens to Your Body When You Sit All Day
Your desk job could be having a serious impact on your health. Here's what you can do about it.
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Long gone are the days where agriculture made up 70% of the workforce. Today, 70% of Americans are spending eight hours (or more) each day in front of a computer—and then more time sitting in front of a TV when they get home. While technology has enabled us to make some incredible advances, our bodies are suffering the consequences of our modern sedentary lifestyles.
"I can personally attest to this—my exercise is largely running up and down the hallway," says Robert Hayden, D.C., Ph.D., F.I.C.C., a spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association. "There are so many things that happen to us when we are sedentary. Human bodies are not made for sitting down, we are made for walking."
We spoke with Dr. Hayden about how our 9-5 grind is negatively affecting our bodies —plus, several ways to combat the effects of a sedentary job.
Sitting All Day Can Cause Some Serious Back Problems
It's no surprise that sitting at a desk all day can lead to back pain, but Hayden says this can become a serious problem if we aren't careful.
"When we sit for long periods, it changes not only the dynamics of spine and weight-bearing joints, but it affects the lengths of joints and muscle tendons," Hayden says. "People who sit for long periods of time will get shortened hamstrings and they get very tight and pull on the pelvis. This creates misalignment which can indirectly cause chronic lower back pain."
He says to picture a line from the top of your head to your tailbone next time you're seated, as that's where gravity is pulling. The longer you're seated, the longer gravity is squeezing discs in your lumbar spine. Hayden says this can lead to sciatic pain, and we're not meant to stay in that position for hours on end.
It could be worth investing in a desk chair that encourages you to sit in a healthy position. This could especially be the case if you work from home on the couch or in an uncomfortable chair with no support. You could also bring a heating pad or hot water bottle to the office to place behind your lower back.
Buy it: Duramont Ergonomic Adjustable Office Chair, $249.99
Sitting All Day Could Cause Our Mental Health to Suffer
Hayden says sitting all day can not only have implications on our physical health, but it can also lead to a decline in mental health.
"There is an Australian study that suggests sedentary adults who sat for six hours or more a day were 90% more likely to experience psychological distress than those who sat for less than three hours a day," Hayden says. "Many, many studies also suggest exercise—especially outdoor exercise—does a whole lot for your mind."
Hayden says there is plenty of research out there to show people who spend their free time watching TV and playing video games experience more anxiety and/or depression. On the other hand, people who regularly exercise tend to be happy and healthier, partially due to releasing endorphins that elevate our moods and block pain.
"There is also some evidence that sedentary people are more likely to develop early dementia," Hayden says. "In some instances, when you factored in sedentary lifestyles, they were as powerful as heredity in developing Alzheimer's Disease."
Try saving your favorite TV show for when you have time to do some bodyweight exercises or for watching on your tablet on the elliptical. It could also be worth asking a friend or significant other to take a walking date instead of going for coffee or lunch.
Sitting All Day Could Lead to Fertility Issues
Hayden says he has seen some compelling research regarding sedentary lifestyles and sexuality—especially in men. He says the combination of sitting all day and having an unhealthy weight more than doubles your risk for erectile dysfunction. (He also notes how ironic it is that you can't watch television for more than an hour without seeing an erectile dysfunction commercial).
"Sitting all day could even decrease sperm count by up to a third if you're watching TV for five hours a day," Hayden says. "Sperm cells are manufactured and stored inside the testicles, and they get warm if you're seated for a while. This can be a problem after so long, as it can decrease sperm count and the swimming ability of the survivors. If you're trying to conceive, it's probably a good idea to get off the sofa."
Scheduling regular exercise into your work day is a great way to help break up a sedentary lifestyle. Julia Jones, C.P.T., a corporate wellness manager based in Atlanta, Georgia, suggests adding a lunchtime workout class or walk on your daily work calendar to hold yourself accountable and help your co-workers respect this time.
Additionally, finding other moderately active hobbies or activities to do after work instead of plopping on the couch—like gardening, biking or cooking—could help keep your heart rate up without engaging in formal exercise. (Here are our favorite ways to burn calories without hitting the gym.)
Sitting All Day Could Cause Our Sleep to Suffer
"[Sitting all day] affects your ability to sleep and rest," Hadyen says. "This gets us into all kinds of global health effects because of the interference with our circadian rhythms."
Research is clear that exercise not only helps us fall asleep, but also helps us stay asleep and get the quality rest we need each night. Conversely, those with sedentary lifestyles are more likely to have restless, insufficient sleep than their active counterparts.
"As sophisticated as we like to think we are as homosapienes, we are still biological creatures governed by biological rules," Hayden says. "The rules say that during stage four of sleep, you begin to release a growth hormone. Want want kids to take naps and rest to have normal growth and development. Adults use that same hormone but to grow tissues. You are much less likely to repair those tissues properly if you don't sleep well or are out of sync with your circadian rhythms."
Poor sleep can have a major impact on multiple facets of our health. Regularly missing the mark is linked to worsened heart health, lower immunity and even weight gain. If you're suffering from sleep issues, it could be worth incorporating more movement into your daily routine.
Sitting All Day Could Cause Joint Pain
Sitting at a desk all day isn't just a likely culprit for your back pain—it can cause pain in your joints as well.
"Your knees, for example, are padded with cartilage that doesn't have its own blood supply," Hayden says. "The joints get nutrition from fluid around it that diffuses into the carilitage. This means that the more the joint is moved and the more range of motion it experiences, the more fluid is exchanged. If the joint is immobilized, it will degenerate quickly, because it's not getting the nutrition it needs."
Setting daily reminders on your smart watch, phone or daily planner could be a great way to combat joint pain. Jones says this can do a double-whammy of also helping combat stress. Even better, walk a few laps around the office, opt for the stairs over the elevator and request walking meetings when possible.
Sitting All Day Can Lead to Headaches
Hayden says that while he spends most of his time treating people with back pain, he also sees a lot of patients that also have severe headaches. This is not just from staring at a screen all day—this can also come from the way you're positioned at your desk.
"The person who is sedentary sitting at a computer, looking down is far more likely to have neck pain and headaches due to degenerative changes in the neck bones and joints," he says. Stretching and moving away from your desk in general could help alleviate this pain.
The Bottom Line
"Human bodies are made for activity, productivity and change of scenery, Hayden says. "We're made to get off our behinds and go accomplish things."
There are certainly seasons of life that are going to be more sedentary than others—like finishing a huge project at work, having a baby or recovering from surgery—but we do have to ensure we incorporate movement into our lives even when it doesn't feel as natural.
While everyone else at your office may never get up from their desks, your initiative could inspire others to become less sedentary, too. Taking regular standing (or stretching) breaks at your desk, heading outside for lunch and coordinating walking meetings with your team could all help ease the effects of a sedentary workday and boost your mental health.