Sitting Disease and Its Impact on Your Spine

The case against prolonged sitting to protect your back and neck

Written by Gerard Malanga, MD

Sitting is worse than smoking. Sitting is a disease. Sitting kills. The accusations against a sedentary lifestyle are piling up. Modern society encourages inactivity, and sitting for extended periods is linked to chronic disease and wreaks havoc on your spine. At the heart of the problem are work environments that encourage employees to sit for hours on end.

While being tied to your computer all day may be inevitable, you can infuse more activity into your day—whether by keeping proper posture front of mind or investing in a sit-stand desk.

But, to truly understand why you should avoid long stretches in the seated position, you need to know the research behind what some in the medical community are calling “sitting disease.”

Health Hazards of a Sedentary Lifestyle
As many as 70% of people spend six or more hours each day sitting down, according to a 2012 study from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. Whether it’s from sending countless emails at work, vegging out in front of the TV, or during the daily commute, people spend a huge amount of their waking hours sitting—and the impact of this level of inactivity is grim.

A 2015 report in Annals of Internal Medicine found an association between prolonged sitting and a greater risk of dying from all causes—even for those who exercised regularly. A sedentary lifestyle was also shown to boost risk for cardiovascular disease, certain cancers (breast, colon, colorectal, endometrial, and epithelial ovarian), and type 2 diabetes in adults.

The results came from a review of 47 studies on the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle. The authors accounted for the types of activity people engaged in, from leisure activities to intense physical activity.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that those who did not exercise had the greatest risk of health problems associated with being sedentary. What’s more fascinating is the discovery that people who exercised regularly were also at risk for the same medical issues. But, those who exercised had a lesser risk than their non-exercising counterparts. 

The take away is that exercise—even if you do it regularly—doesn’t give you a free pass to spend the rest of the day being inactive. But, don’t give up on exercising: Adding just two minutes of light activity to every hour spent sitting can lower your risk of dying by one-third, according to a 2015 Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology study.

How Sitting Hurts Your Back and Neck
After a long workday sitting at your desk, do you feel as refreshed as when you arrived at the office that morning? The answer is likely no.

Spending much of your day in a seated position can leave your spine sore, stiff, and in pain. That’s because too much sitting, while it may be relaxing, puts stress on the muscles and discs of your back and neck. This position results in tightness of your hip flexors such as the iliopsoas muscle and pressure and some ischemia (restricted blood flow) of your buttock muscles—the gluteus maximus. This muscle is an important supporter of the spine.

Also, the longer you stay seated, the more likely you are to let your posture slide. Slouching can cause the spinal ligaments to stretch beyond their healthy limit, and poor posture can strain your spinal discs. This often results in increased strain of the outer annulus of the disc and can increase disc bulging and disc pressures. In addition, while sitting, we are often working on a computer or writing at desks that results in a forward head position, rounded shoulder posture—aka “poor posture syndrome.”

A day glued to your office chair may lead to an isolated episode of back or neck pain and soreness. However, if you spend day after day sitting, you can cause significant spine issues over time. Regular, long bouts of sitting will speed up the wear and tear on your spinal discs, and neck and back pain can become a daily occurrence as opposed to an occasional problem.

Investing in an ergonomic chair and reacquainting yourself with the foundations of proper posture are two ways to help mitigate the potential spinal damage of sitting all day at work. This includes stretching the muscles that often become tight such as the pectorals, scalenes traps in the neck, and the hip flexors of hip. In addition, it is important to strengthen muscles that are not used: abdominals glutes; back extensors and scapular muscles will restore the spine’s normal muscular balance and improve posture AND pain.

But, remember: While you may feel completely comfortable in your chair and find a perfect sitting posture, staying in the same position for long periods is not healthy for your spine. Varying your postures by occasionally standing and moving around for at least a few minutes each half hour will help keep your spinal joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments loose and pain free.

One of the best ways to seamlessly integrate activity and work productivity is through a sit-stand desk.

Better Health at Work: Sit-Stand Desks
We’ve all been there: You’re in a groove at work and typing furiously. You look at the clock and see two hours have passed—and you haven’t risen from your chair once.

While most experts recommend getting some activity every 20-30 minutes, with 20 minutes of standing per hour, our computer-driven work culture chains workers to their desks. Fortunately, desk technology has (literally) risen to the challenge of keeping employees healthy.

Enter the sit-stand desk (also called the sit-to-stand desk). These desks allow you to easily transition from a sitting to standing pose, while maintaining your desktop setup.  Standing while working can boost your productivity and allow you to readjust your posture. Plus, you burn 30% more calories when you’re standing than when you’re sitting, so it comes as no surprise that sit-stand desks are associated with weight loss.

As employers look to improve or establish a culture of wellness in their workplaces, sit-stand desks are gaining traction. If you’re thinking about a sit-stand desk for home or work, take the time to learn about what you should consider when buying a sit-stand desk. 

Stand Up for Your Spine
If you don’t have a sit-stand desk, you can still combat sitting disease and protect your spine. Consider these tips:

The focus is simple: Reduce your sitting throughout the day. But, remember that varying postures is best for your back and neck, so don’t go to the opposite extreme and never sit. Mixing sitting, standing, and movement throughout your day is the best way you can keep your spine safe and body healthy—at work and beyond.

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Ergonomics and Sciatica