23 August 2019
For years, scientists and doctors, ergonomists and chiropractors have fretted about whether sitting might be bad for us.
Our spines evolved from ancestors who walked on all fours; now we shoehorn them into an office chair for eight hours every day.
Alarming studies to see if sitting down all day meant we were ruining the discs in our spine led to dramatic headlines claiming that sitting at office desks was "the new smoking".
Luckily, as more science has been done, experts are coming to a new conclusion: those early fears have been wildly overstated.
No, sitting is not damaging your back. No, it is not the new smoking. Relax.
That said, it's not harm-free.
No, your chair is not damaging your back
here is no evidence sitting in a chair is damaging your back, according to a huge new study.
A team of researchers, led by Deakin University’s Associate Professor Daniel Belavy, combined 41 systematic reviews into a kind of mega-review involving more than one million people, looking at whether sitting was linked to back pain.
Some of the reviews found it was. Others found it wasn’t. Most were of very poor quality. But when they were all put together, the strongest evidence was that sitting did not cause back pain.
“If someone has a desk job — like I do — I still think it’s important to have breaks, to be physically active,” says Dr Belavy. “But from the narrow question of whether sitting causes back pain, I think we can iron that one out.”
However, sitting can make your back sore. But that does not mean the muscles or bones are damaged, just that they are doing their job: supporting your body.
“It’s like going to the gym. Eventually those muscles get tired and start to burn a bit,” says Dr Belavy.
When your back gets sore, it's a great indication it wants to move or change postures, says Dr Belavy. But there are no long-term harms.
Get up, move
What about the health effects of sitting all day? Is it as bad as smoking?
The results of some early studies were concerning but more data has come in, giving a better idea of the risks.
Here's one way of looking at it. If all the men in the US changed from sitting often to sitting rarely, there would be 190 fewer deaths for every 100,000 people.
If every male smoker in America had never smoked, there would be 1554 fewer deaths per 100,000 people.
So sitting is unhealthy, but nothing like as unhealthy as a pack-a-day habit. Why? First, it means we're not being active; humans are supposed to get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week.
There may be another reason. At the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, Professor David Dunstan has been carefully monitoring the blood glucose levels of people as they sit in a chair.
When we eat, our body turns our food into sugar in our blood. That sugar should be taken up by our muscles, in particular our big, strong thigh muscles.
If we sit, those muscles aren’t working, so they don’t need sugar. The sugar stays in our blood, Professor Dunstan has found, which in the long-term might damage our sensitivity to insulin and put us at risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.
Sitting also slows blood flow. “As soon as we get up and move, we’re circulating the blood. That’s good for us — it’s helping to clear out the bad products, and get the glucose to the muscles,” says Professor Dunstan.
But we can't exercise all the time — we need to work. Professor Dunstan advocates breaking up long sitting with a small bout of movement every 30 minutes. He's even designed his own routine.
“We have shown in people with and without diabetes, if we interrupt sitting with exercise, it leads to a reduction in the blood glucose levels and improves the insulin levels," he says.
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