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Is sitting ageing you prematurely? Part 1

Sitting is the latest health scare that’s been compared to smoking. The dangers of smoking are now so well known, it’s a great way to get our attention. It seems unthinkable that several decades ago, smoking was advertised as a way to reduce throat irritation, and as a method to stay slim. There are many things that we once thought were harmless or even beneficial, that experience and research then proved otherwise!

Sitting may turn out to be a bigger problem than all of the other recent health scares put together, as we’re all doing it every single day, and it looks like it could be accelerating the ageing process...

Travelling, sitting at a desk or table, or watching TV. This is the common pattern of modern working life. If you spend most of your waking hours on your backside, you are at a much higher risk of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, obesity and even cancer. Shockingly, the latest evidence is suggesting that the guidelines for regular exercise are not enough to undo the long-term damage!

Primitive folks didn’t have have armchairs

How could something as natural as sitting be so bad for you? Surely we didn’t stand around all day before the invention of the chair? There’s no doubt that before the dawn of civilisation, hunting and gathering humans were far more active. It’s reasonable to say that there would have been periods of sitting to eat, and to save energy when food was scarce, but this wouldn’t have been anywhere near the amount it is today.

the evolution to sitting

There’s also evidence to suggest that our ancestors very rarely suffered from the chronic diseases mentioned above. Average life expectancy was generally lower back then (primarily due to higher infant mortality, no treatment for infections, and no high tech A&E facilities) but there’s plenty of data to prove that Stone Age humans were far more robust than we are. In fact, there are still hunter-gatherer societies existing on the planet today, and those that still follow their traditional lifestyles are remarkably healthy.

Go with the flow

So what happens to us when we sit, or rather, what doesn’t? Your bodily functions are constantly in motion. Nothing is static, from the beating of the heart down to the electrons vibrating around your atoms. Physical movement is generated by electrical signals from the brain telling your muscles to contract. Some of this is controlled by the ‘autonomic’ nervous system, meaning that you don’t have to consciously think about it (such as moving food through the digestive tract). Your limbs are controlled by the ‘somatic’ nervous system, meaning that you can move them on command.

It’s the combination of these movement types that stimulates blood flow and flushes nutrients around the body, and just as importantly, flushes toxins out. When you’re awake and not moving against gravity, everything stagnates. Think of a still pond compared to a river. Nature requires motion to operate effectively and provide clean energy.

stagnant pond

Astronauts have to be incredibly fit and healthy to withstand the stresses of getting into space and living in orbit. The lack of gravity for their muscles to work against is a huge issue, and without performing regular resistance exercise to compensate, early astronauts suffered major health problems due to rapid muscle loss and bone wastage. The same processes are happening back here on earth when we sit for too long, just at a slow enough rate that you don’t actually notice until it's too late!

Get your glutes fired up!

Another reason why excessive sitting is such a problem, is that it causes muscle imbalances, that are very often the cause of that ‘mysterious’ lower back pain, that we usually attribute to getting older. Your glute muscles (buttocks) should be the most powerful in the human body, not only keeping you upright, but with the capability to propel you forward at speed, and squat down to lift things off the ground.

Unfortunately, sitting degrades their muscle tone, to the point where the signals from the brain become muted like a bad radio reception, and you can’t contract them properly.

This is compounded by muscles on the opposite side (the hip flexors) becoming too tight, by having the hips regularly flexed at 90 degrees when seated. This pulls the pelvis out of alignment, and smaller, much weaker muscles around the lower back are forced to try and keep us upright. These muscles were never designed for this responsibility, and become so fatigued, that the slightest thing (such as bending over to tie a shoelace) can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back...

If ‘sitting still’ is so bad, is ‘standing still’ any better? Standing is generally regarded as superior, in that it doesn’t cause those muscle imbalance issues with the glutes and hip flexors, but it can still be a problem if you’re stood still for too long without regularly moving position. I’ve been experimenting with standing workstation setups for several months now, and the pros and cons will be covered in a future post.

Damage limitation

So what can you do in a society that’s designed around sitting, to avoid potentially painful side effects and increasing the risk of chronic diseases? In part two, I’ll provide some simple tips and tricks that you can implement, without removing all of the chairs in your house; although some highly respected movement specialists are doing just that!

I hope this has brought you some awareness of how sitting can affect your overall wellbeing. The effects may not be noticeable due to the timescales involved, but it's highly likely that you're ageing and degrading your health prematurely.

If you have any questions about this topic, or have already made steps (hint) to reduce the amount of sitting, please leave a comment below!

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