13 Dec 2021

For so many of us, sitting is not just prevalent but also continual. After all, we spend so much of our lives sitting that we are unlikely to even question how much we are doing it or if it is okay for us to be sitting this much to begin with. Epidemiological studies have also noted its pervasiveness, with reports indicating that adults in Singapore tend to sit uninterrupted for around an average of 5 to 6 hours a day without standing or strolling1. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this trend has only been exacerbated due to increasingly commonplace work-from-home measures. Our 2021 360 Wellbeing Survey found that the majority of respondents in Singapore (approximately 45%) felt that they were not exercising on a regular basis, as compared to the 21% who felt otherwise2. To better understand the importance of regular exercise throughout the day, let us dive deeper into how long periods of sitting and inactivity can affect our health.

The health impacts and risks of prolonged sitting

The fact is that while over-sitting might seem harmless, it actually brings about several negative health impacts to our bodies in both the short and long run. For instance, over-sitting is associated with the various musculoskeletal pains and aches that we regularly experience throughout our daily lives. Such common ailments include back pain, as well as stiff muscles and joints. Whenever we sit for extended periods of time, our bones and muscles gradually lose their strength since they are no longer working as much to support our bodies. As a result, their ability to support our body systems is reduced, leading to constant aches and pains.

In the long run, over-sitting can have even more severe health effects on our bodies. When we are regularly inactive for long hours, it takes a toll on our metabolic health and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, even in individuals who are seemingly healthy. This is because our leg muscles, which are the largest muscles in our body, are barely being worked when we are sitting. As such, they only require minimal fuel and sugar from our bloodstream to function and do not release the necessary enzymes to help break down fatty acids in the body. In fact, after just 1 hour of sitting, the production of enzymes that burn fat declines by as much as 90%3. This causes our blood sugar and cholesterol to build up much more easily in our bloodstream, which in turn leads to a multitude of health issues. A study on physical inactivity found that it is directly linked to 6% of the impact for heart diseases, 7% for type 2 diabetes, and 10% for breast or colon cancer4. In order to reduce the health impact of inactivity due to over-sitting, the best solution would be to make an effort to be more active throughout the day.

Countering the effects of over-sitting

A common misconception that we have developed as a society is that exercise has to be done separately in the form of distinct hour-long sessions at the gym or at specific workout classes. While such perceptions can help to make exercise more intentional, they also bring with them the unfortunate side effect of making exercise seem like more of an ordeal than it needs to be. The truth is actually quite the opposite. Studies have found that standing up and moving every half an hour or so for as few as 3 minutes may already be impactful enough to lessen the health impacts of over-sitting5. Within these 3-minute breaks, participants who did squats, jumping jacks, or took even as few as 15 steps saw improved aspects of blood sugar control without sacrificing too much of their focus or productivity. The benefits also scaled according to the level of activity. In other words, moving more consistently and wilfully gives us greater metabolic health benefits, but simply putting in the effort to get up and move can already make a world of difference.

Of course, it is important to keep in mind that even though short bursts of exercise are beneficial, they ultimately cannot and should not replace regular exercise. In this regard, similar research has suggested feasible alternatives to achieve the sweet spot for physical activity and longevity. One study, in particular, recommends 35 minutes of moderate daily activities like brisk walking to counter the effects of prolonged inactivity, no matter how long we may have sat throughout the day6. When it really comes down to it, however, the most important change that we can make for ourselves is to create small behavioural changes in our everyday lives that we can continue to sustain in the long run. To get you thinking, here are some ways that we can tap into the research to implement a healthier, more active lifestyle for ourselves:

  • Set alarms and reminders to move every half an hour or so
  • Use a standing desk while working, if possible
  • Tie small bursts of exercise to daily tasks and routines such as our mealtimes, bathroom breaks or water breaks
  • Opt to move more whenever possible, like choosing to take the stairs instead of the lift or arranging for walking meetings instead of regular sit-down ones
  • Continue sticking to the recommended 150 mins of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise every week7

Over to you

With most of our lives being spent in contact with our electronic devices, be it for work or leisure, it seems inevitable that we will at some point fall into the trap of over-sitting and be more susceptible to the negative health effects that come with it. Thankfully, we can mitigate these effects with simple actions, and any effort we make to stay active, no matter how small, does bring us closer to a better health outcome. The most important thing here is just to keep going and never stop trying.

 

 

Sources:

1. Uijtdewilligen, L., Yin, J., van der Ploeg, H., & Müller-Riemenschneider, F. (2017). Correlates of occupational, leisure and total sitting time in working adults: results from the Singapore multi-ethnic cohort.

2. Cigna. (2021). 2021 Cigna 360 Wellbeing Survey: On the Road to Recovery.

3. Beaumont Health. How Sitting Too Much Can Lead to Heart Disease.

4. Lee, I., Shiroma, E., Lobelo, F., Puska, P., Blair, S., & Katzmarzyk, P. (2012). Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy.

5. Smith, J., Savikj, M., Sethi, P., Platt, S., Gabriel, B., & Hawley, J. et al. (2021). Three weeks of interrupting sitting lowers fasting glucose and glycemic variability, but not glucose tolerance, in free-living women and men with obesity.

6. Ekelund, U., Tarp, J., Fagerland, M., Johannessen, J., Hansen, B., & Jefferis, B. et al. (2020). Joint associations of accelerometer-measured physical activity and sedentary time with all-cause mortality: a harmonised meta-analysis in more than 44 000 middle-aged and older individuals.

7. ​​Health Promotion Board. (2021). Get Active, Aim for 150 Minutes a Week, Anytime, Anywhere, to be Healthy.

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