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Tips to help break up prolonged sitting

African Woman With Back Pain At Work Desk. Posture Problem
Andrey Popov/Andrey Popov - stock.adobe.com
Most people have sedentary jobs and sit for an average of eight hours a day. But prolonged sitting has negative impacts on both our physical and mental health.

Sedentary jobs have increased to about 80% since 1950 according to the American Heart Association, and physically active jobs currently make up less than 20% of the U.S. workforce.

If you’re someone with a job that doesn't require much movement, chances are you’re spending about eight hours a day sitting. With the average American being active for less than 20 minutes a day, this prolonged sitting can negatively impact your health.

"You really want to limit the sitting for more than an hour," says Ann Swartz, UW-Milwaukee professor of kinesiology.

When we sit for long periods of time, we increase the risk of developing things like Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and excess body fat. In addition to that, there is also an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and even some cancers according to Swartz.

"In terms of our mental health, it increases our risk for depression and diminishes our cognitive function," she adds. When we move our body in any way, our muscles contract and blood flow increases to our brain and all organs in our body. "So that movement is really vital to making sure that we're as healthy as we can be," says Swartz.

However not all sitting is bad for us. "We sit to have dinner, we sit to socialize with our friends, we sit to read and those are all great activities. But it’s when we sit for too long that it becomes detrimental to our health," Swartz notes.

So how can we make some small changes to counteract the negative effects that prolonged sitting has on our mind and bodies? First, we need to separate our sitting periods from our active periods — meaning all the effects of sitting for long periods of time are separate from a person’s physical activity. While this may seem counterintuitive, Swartz explains that there seems to be a 10-hour threshold.

"If you sit continuously for about 10 hours then it doesn't matter how much physical activity you do—that may not counteract the negative effects of sitting," she says.

For the average person sitting for eight hours a day, Swartz says getting in about an hour of moderate to vigorous activity will go a long way. She notes any moderate activity allows you to hold a conversation, but makes you a little breathless.

"So if you can do about an hour of that per day, than that will counteract the long periods of sitting," she says. "However, doing an hour of activity is a lot to ask of people, and so an alternative strategy would be just to really work on breaking up that sitting time."

For example, every half hour you can stand up to refill your drink, take a lap around the office, do a strengthening exercise, or do a quick chore if you're working from home.

While standing desks are popular, "they're not our optimal way of breaking up sitting," Swartz notes. They are useful to help change our posture throughout the day, but ultimately we need to be aware of any position that we stay stationary in for too long, including standing in place.

"So if you have your standing desk, continue to move it but continue to break up that stationary time," she says.

Swartz notes that the pandemic has also contributed to people engaging in less physical activity overall and sitting more. This carries over into all aspects of our health, including sleep.

"When we do sit all day and we aren't as active then we tend not to sleep as well," she explains. "We know that exercise can promote much better sleep, and so as hard as it can be sometimes to break up your sitting and to get outside and maybe take a walk or move around your house — it's not only going to be good directly for your health, but then it's going to indirectly help you through better sleep."

If it's difficult to set time aside for longer periods of movement, Swartz encourages any movement whenever you can. "Just do something... Move your body in some way everyday and that's the most important message."


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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