What you need to know about sitting all day. Will it kill you?

Ryan Todd Lloyd, DCSan Francisco Public Health

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Too much sitting.

In the clinic, I picked up a copy of Scientific America that we had laying around. I grabbed it because it has the cover article about “The Neuroscience of Meditation”, but when I started flipping through the pages, the article claiming that sitting can kill you commanded my attention.

It turns out that Americans sit through most of our waking hours. 13 hours a day on average. Apparently, there has been a lot of research looking into the effects that sitting can have on you.

Here are some findings:

  • Sitting for more than 4 hours a day watching television gives you a 46% greater chance of death compared to if you sit for less than 2 hours.
  • Sitting for more than half a day doubles your risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Overall, people who sit all day have a 50% greater chance of dying in any given time frame compared to people who are more active.

We aren’t designed to sit for long periods of time. When we sit, everything slows down. Our metabolism slows down. The food that you eat doesn’t get converted to usable energy, instead your body stores it as fat. When you start to store more fat, you also are prone to heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and more. Even if you aren’t fat and you sit all day, you can subject your body to blood sugar spikes, which can mess with the body’s metabolism and increase free-radical damage.

The author did a study on agriculture workers and urban office workers. In this study, they gave the people some special underwear that had sensors attached. They told the people to wear the underwear for 10 days. They found out that if you work on a farm, you only sit for 3 hours a day, on average. If you work in an office, you will be sitting for 13 hours a day. They calculated that you will be burning 2000 calories more per day than people working in an office. They call this increased calorie burning “NEAT.” NEAT stands for “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.” This is calory burning through your every day activity. The author thinks that daily activity is just as important as diet for weight control.

Next, the author wanted to compare the habits of obese people compared to lean people working in the same office environment. They put the underwear on the people again, and they found that if you are obese, you sit 2.25 hours more than lean people. You burn 350 fewer article per day if you sit 2 hours more per day.

They even tried an experiment where they overfed people about 1000 calories extra per day. Rather than gain weight, the researchers found that if you are a naturally skinny person, you will just increase your NEAT activity level through the day to burn off the calories. This is similar to other experiments in obesity. The human body really wants to maintain a set weight. However, if you are fed extra, and you don’t increase your NEAT, you will gain weight.

There is a balancing act between our body’s drive to get in activity and to rest and to eat. When we sit all day, we are confusing our body’s signals to stop eating and to move more. We are ignoring the urge to move, and we make up for it by feeding.

In our office, we are getting patients demanding their employer outfit them with standing desks. Most large companies in Downtown San Francisco have accommodations for people to stand as they work. Most people enjoy good results from this, as they are moving from stress on the neck and low back to a standing position. Standing re-distributes the forces, and allows you to shift your body weight around.

An even better idea is to use a treadmill desk. A treadmill desk allows you to walk very slowly (1-2 mph) while you work. It’s slow enough that it doesn’t interfere with keyboarding and mousing. Walking allows you to shift your weight in a natural way from left to right, and promotes natural spine movement that you don’t enjoy with prolonged standing.

Todd Lloyd, DC
chiropractor in San Francisco.

image from: Funders and Founders



Ryan Todd Lloyd, DC

I'm a chiropractor who specializes in correcting and relieving back and neck disorders. I have found that when you increase the mobility of your spine and joints with chiropractic care and follow up with this with improving muscle coordination with targeted exercises,then improving your function will also improve your pain.