WE SIT TOO MUCH. Even in summertime, we sit on the beach, at outdoor cafes, to watch tennis or sunsets, while working and most of all, when traveling. “Yoga for Travelers: the ‘Sitting Disease’” headlines the “Yoga Today” section of the summer Pathways, D.C.’s alternative health publication. Traveling is exhausting because, counterintuitively, there’s so much sitting involved.
And year-round, there’s always inertia: the more we sit, the more we sit… Standing up every 20 minutes is more effective at counteracting the harmful effects of sitting than taking a long walk, notes NASA researcher Joan Vernikos. A common recommendation is to set an alarm on your phone or watch for 20 minutes, so that you can be sure to stand up often enough.
“Sitting is the new smoking” seems to be the slogan of 2014. “Sitting disease” is now commonly used within the medical community “when referring to metabolic syndrome and the ill-effects of an overly sedentary lifestyle,” according to the website Juststand.org.
On Juststand.org, Mayo Clinic experts weigh in: “For most people who sit most of the day, their risk of heart attack is about the same as smoking,” says cardiologist Martha Grogan. Also, “Today, our bodies are breaking down from obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, depression and the cascade of health ills and everyday malaise that come from what scientists have named sitting disease,” writes endocrinologist James Levine.
Sitting reduces the pressure of gravity on your body compared to standing. NASA studies show that a completely gravity-free environment accelerates the aging process by a factor of ten, but the gravity loss when you sit can make a difference. Sitting has been linked to so many health risks that, according to a 2010 American Cancer Society study, sitting shortens your lifespan regardless of all the physical activity you do when not sitting.
That study, which followed almost 70,000 women from 1993 to 2006, found that inactive women who sit more than six hours a day were 94 percent more likely to die during the course of the study than physically active women who sit less than three hours a day. Research at Vanderbilt University found that the average American spends about 55 percent of their waking hours or 7.7 hours per day in “sedentary behaviors like sitting.”
The gyrotonics instructor who has been most helpful as a physical therapist/personal trainer to me as well as to many of my friends, Nathan Martin, says that even the fittest among us (for example, people who take more than one exercise class a day) suffer from too much sitting. Martin sees “many more younger people today with old people’s problems” because they spend too much time sitting, due to the proliferation of technology. He points to the irony that yoga was invented to get people physically able to sit for long periods in the Buddha pose, but that you need to be physically active in order to get to the point where you can sit like that without pain. Sitting too much weakens our hamstrings and pelvis to the point that everything from our necks to our feet is thrown off kilter, he has found.
Bess Abrahams, co-author of “Airplane Yoga,” has a few tips for airplane travel: Always take the aisle seat; do heel and toe raises, alternating your weight from one foot to the other any time you get the chance to stand, and do “standing thigh stretches,” pulling your foot up behind your rear end, in the bathroom or anywhere.
On driving trips, Yoga Today author Claudia Neuman lists her favorite “yoga poses to do at rest stops.” The most doable: a “half downward dog against the car.” For the driver behind the wheel, Neuman recommends neck stretches, gently moving your head from side to side, shoulder rolls, conscious breathing and chanting. (For the last one, I prefer loud singing to combat drowsiness while driving.)
And then there’s workplace sitting. Nathan Martin advises using a standing desk as much of the time as possible. Among the five most popular models of these desks, according to one poll, is the DIY option — piling up boxes or books to create a higher desk — very appealing because you can try out the concept at various heights and locations in your house or workspace before taking the expensive plunge.
Having set up several piles in my house, I use them for downtime activities like newspaper reading and Words with Friends. But I haven’t yet mastered the art of sparing any of my attention, needed for actual work, for staying upright. True believers like Martin keep reminding me to try.