First, what are the risks associated with chronic sitting?
The risks are many, but we'll be taking a look at only a few:
- Deep vein thrombosis. A blood clot that forms and can potentially become mobile in the blood stream. This clot can travel to different areas of the body and potentially block an important vessel leading to the lungs for instance, a severe medical emergency known as a pulmonary embolism.
- Cardiac disease. With the decline in circulation of blood and sedentary behaviour, the risk of heart disease climbs. One study demonstrated that men sitting for 23 hours a week experienced a 64% increase in the risk of dying from cardiovascular conditions. This statistic did not include time spent in a vehicle, which at more than 10 hours a week puts men at an 82% higher risk of these conditions. 10 hours in a vehicle is not a hard statistic to achieve in a major city if you spend one hour commuting in the morning and one in the evening through a work week.
- Cancer. A large-scale analysis of over 4 million individuals and 68,936 cancer cases determined that sitting increases the risk of three cancers in particular – colon, endometrial, and lung.
- Diabetes. Sitting for long periods of time was significantly associated with the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in a multiethnic pool of participants. How great is this risk you ask? Those who sit approximately 29 hours per week have a 112% increased risk of developing diabetes.
Why does sitting contribute to these conditions?
Gravity is working against your body throughout day to keep the blood in the part of the body closest to the ground. If the body didn't have a mechanism in place to counter gravity, then the blood would have difficulty returning to the heart.
In order to overcome this limitation, the veins of the lower body have one-way valves. When the muscles around these veins contract, the valves open and allow blood to flow towards the heart. When the muscles around these veins relax, the valves close and prevent the blood from falling back down towards the legs and feet.
These motions of blood rely on the activity of the muscles in the lower body. The more motion, the more quickly the blood can circulate. When motion declines, such as when individuals sit for long periods of time, the blood is stagnant which runs the risk of potentially forming a clot like in deep vein thrombosis. Imagine sitting too, this compresses the legs and blood vessels, making it more difficult for blood to pass through.
What are some steps I can take to bring some motion into my life?
- Implement a balance ball chair – to potentially increase the level of attention and improve self-ratings of sitting discomfort, especially in the neck, shoulder, and low back. The ball engages the abdominal muscles of the core and the back muscles. Some studies have demonstrated that some individuals may actually experience increased discomfort, but this requires further research and could be due to years of sitting strengthening and weakening certain muscle groups.
- Walking meetings – in workplaces where this makes sense, choose to have your meeting outside the conference or board room. Whether it's walking through the office building, or taking 30 minutes outside, you can stimulate creative thinking and also break up a day spent at desk or in chair. Studies have shown that walking meetings are better used to stimulate ideas and discussion, a time to brainstorm rather than make decisions. This form of convergent thinking seems to suffer when you put your legs in motion. A walking meeting also doesn't require the entire team and has been shown to be most effective in a group of three.
- Green therapy – a Harvard study demonstrated that working in a green certified office can lead to a 26% increase in cognition, a 6% improvement in sleep quality and 30% fewer sick days. By investing in the health of the workplace, employers invest in their employees. These plants can improve air quality and lead to fewer illnesses, especially respiratory and cardiovascular. If offices invest in green areas, employees are draw to them and this may encourage them to get up and move around more often.
Symptomatic relief. Adding an herb known as horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), to your desk décor or as a go-to throughout the day may help alleviate symptoms and improve blood flow. This potent herb has historically been used for toning the blood vessels throughout the body and controlling the build-up of fluid that could result in varicose veins. Products such as Venaforce come in tablet, liquid, and gel form. The gel can be massaged into the legs in an upward motion to follow and encourage the natural flow of blood. The German Commission E lists no significant interactions with medication.