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10 health risks relating to sitting

As more scientific studies on the impact of prolonged sitting are carried out, further links to a wide range of health problems are being found. As these associations become more widely accepted by the modern office workforce, it has the potential to change how we spend our working lives.

The long term implications of too much sitting are now accepted to be a major factor in four of the seven leading causes of mortality (death) in the Western world. Some of the health implications of long term sitting and inactivity may seem obvious (a propensity towards weight gain for example), but new studies are finding new connections, and some - such as a recent link between sitting and an increased risk of dementia - may come as a surprise.

1. Increased risk of Heart Disease

heart with plaster

The World Health Organisation identifies Ischaemic heart disease and stroke together as “the world’s biggest killers, accounting for a combined 15 million deaths in 2015”(1)

A link to heart disease and sitting was first determined by a study in the 1950s (2), which found a marked increase in heart disease in London bus drivers, compared to their bus conductor colleagues, who stood and moved at work.

Many further studies have been carried out and continue and these have found a direct correlation of increased sedentary behaviour and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death due to cardiovascular disease. (3)

The British Heart Foundation encourage a more active working life through their Health at Work scheme, and senior Cardiac Nurse, Julie Ward states “Current Department of Health Guidelines state we should reduce the time we spend sitting”. (4)

2. Increased risk of stroke

An article published in The Lancet (5) suggested that there was a 33% greater risk of stroke in those working 55 or more hours per week, compared with a standard working week of 35-40 hours.

The Stroke Association suggested that as working long hours can involve sitting down for prolong periods, there may be a link between sedentary behaviour at work and stroke (6), although it is recognised that working long hours could also increase stroke risk factors such as stress and less time for exercise and healthy eating.

3. Increased risk of some cancers

Physical activity is known to reduce risk for breast and colon cancer, and it has also been found to reduce womb cancer, according to Cancer Research UK.

Though the type of physical activity is also important. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reports that people sitting for long periods during their day increase their risk of developing certain types of cancer than those who are more active throughout the day.

American Cancer Society epidemiologist, Alpa Patel, conducted a study of 123,000 people which concluded that the more time people spend sitting, the greater their risk of premature death. (7)

4. Increased risk of Type 2 diabetes

Sedentary behaviour and sitting in particular has been linked with type 2 diabetes. A study by Diabetologia determined that each extra hour of sitting or reclining each day was associated with 22% increased risk of getting type 2 diabetes.

The Head of Research at Diabetes UK, Dr Matthew Hobbs said that “the overarching message is that spending a lot of time sitting or lying down can be bad for overall health and considerably increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes”.

5. Increased risk of high blood pressure

High blood pressure is linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, strokes and kidney disease. A study from the School of Public Health in the University of Minnesota in 2014 (8) found positive effects and ‘trends towards improvements in blood pressure’ among the study group who spend at least half of their working day at a standing work station.These effects were further improved in those who combined standing with regular movement.

6. Weight gain

A study published in the European Journal of Public Health in November 2017 states that ‘changes in physical activity patterns with more sedentary behaviours and increasing sitting time are related to obesity’.

Standing and walking rather than sitting can have numerous health benefits, including lowering BMI.

Being overweight or obese can lead to many health problems, so it will come as no surprise that staying active and moving around more is a key factor in reducing weight gain.

7. Back pain

It’s estimated that up to 80% of us are affected by back pain at some point in our lives.

As well as taking note of your posture, the ergonomics of your workspace and ensuring that you lift heavy items correctly, standing and moving around regularly are all encouraged by the NHS to reduce and prevent back pain.Something as simple as moving around a little bit more during your working day has to be better than taking lots of painkillers.

8. Increased risk of depression

Sitting for long periods has been linked with depression, although there may be a question of cause and effect - are people who have mental health issues more likely to sit for longer? Or is it that people who sit for longer develop mental health problems as a result?

Studies at the University of Tasmania found links between sitting at work for periods of longer than six hours and increased rates of depression and anxiety, compared to colleagues who didn’t spend as much time sitting.(9)

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