The Risks of Prolonged Sitting

businesswoman stretching after prolonged sitting at her computer and doing breathing exercises
A business woman stretching at her computer

Prolonged sitting at a computer endangers your health

Do you feel stiff and sore after prolonged sitting at a computer for a few hours?

Along with poor posture, sitting at a computer can contribute to Occupational Overuse Injuries. These were previously called Repetitive Strain Injuries or RSI. Neck and shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and lower back pain are common in people who sit too much. Screen brightness and constant focal length can also cause eye strain. Many businesses now offer ergonomic work station assessments to help reduce these workplace injuries.

How many hours do you sit each day?

Try this calculation.

  1. Consider your morning routine on a average work day. How many hours are you sitting before you arrive at work? Include time spent sitting during breakfast, mobile phone or computer use, watching television and traveling to work by car, bus or train.
  2. Estimate the number of hours you sit at work each day. Include your lunch break.
  3. Finally consider the time you spend sitting between leaving work and going to bed. This includes sitting while you travel home, use your computer, mobile or TV. It might also include sitting while you read, eat or just relax.
  4. Add the 3 numbers together. You may be surprised at the total number of hours you are sitting on the average work day.

Research reveals serious health risks of prolonged sitting

Stiffness, pain and tension may not be the most serious risks faced by people in sedentary occupations. There is now scientific evidence that prolonged sitting is even more harmful.

An Australian government site warns that sitting for more than 11 hours per day can increase the risk of death within the next 3 years by 40 percent. Regular prolonged sitting is related to a higher incidence of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, fatty liver disease and some forms of cancer. The risks may also be present for those who exercise regularly before or after work.

Another large study at was done at Columbia University. This research involved almost 8,000 participants. Those who sat for at least 13 hours a day combined with multiple sedentary bouts of 60 to 90 minutes had nearly twice the risk of dying within 4 years.

This highlights the need to get up from your chair at least once an hour.

Metabolic syndrome

The main problem with sitting is that it is sedentary. You may be in one position for several hours, with little muscular activity. This results in stagnation of the circulation, pooling of blood in the legs. During periods of inactivity there if often shallow breathing or breath holding.

Your body is always burning energy. Even during sleep the body requires energy in order to carry out processes such as digestion and tissue repair. The metabolic rate is the number of kilojoules (calories) the the body burns per hour. When you sit for long periods the metabolic rate is low.

A reduced metabolic rate means that relatively fewer calories per hour are being used by the body. A possible outcome is Metabolic Syndrome. This condition involves a collection of signs and symptoms:

  • increased blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • elevated blood sugar levels
  • weight gain (especially around the abdomen).

Getting up regularly for a short brisk walk can help raise the metabolic rate. Research shows following vigorous exercise that the metabolic rate remains higher for up to 24 hours afterwards.

Mental health problems and prolonged sitting

A further problem with prolonged sitting is its effect on mental health. Research is now starting to show that it is related to higher levels of depression and anxiety. It is also known that regular exercise can be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression.

Read about how the Feldenkrais Method can help mental health.

How to counteract prolonged sitting

The best way to counteract these problems is to break up your sitting with frequent short periods of activity. This so called ‘incidental exercise’ can help to counteract the health risks of sitting.

Breaks from sitting in front of a screen are vital for the musculo-skeletal, cardio vascular and respiratory systems as well as for weight management and mental health. The question is, how can these be incorporated into a busy schedule?

Active work stations and active offices – way of the future

Some offices are now creating activity centres or outdoor exercise areas. These are places where staff can participate in short periods of vigorous exercise, for example one to two minutes of cycling on a stationary bike or walking on a treadmill.

Sit stand desks are becoming common. Although there is more muscle use in standing, it is still relatively sedentary and can cause pooling of blood in the legs.

As a result, active work stations are currently being developed. These including cycling computer work stations and treadmill computer work stations. In the future perhaps we will all have the option of being more active, even while working on a computer for much of the day.

5 Ways to Counteract Sitting at Work