It makes sense that working at a desk job increases the risk of being overweight, due to low activity levels required by that type of work. But lately scientists have learned that the mere act of sitting for long periods can increase the risk of health problems.
In addition to increased weight, those who sit for long periods of time face an increased risk of premature mortality, heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes. They also tend to have poorer posture than those in non-sedentary jobs, and sitting for long periods can cause back pain.
What’s so risky about sitting? When you sit for long periods of time, your lower spine has to support the weight of the upper body. A normal spine has an “s” curve shape, with a curve in at the lower back, or lumbar area of the spine. This helps distribute the weight throughout the spine. Sitting incorrectly can straighten that curve, which puts more pressure on the sitting bones and the spongy disks between the vertebrae. Over time, this can result in compression of the disks. The disks serve as shock absorbers between the vertebrae. When they are compressed or damaged, the vertebrae can rub together, causing pain and damage to the vertebrae.
Sitting for a long period of time — even in the proper position — will still strain your muscles. This causes fatigue, which will make it harder for you to maintain a correct seated position.
Beyond the back, sitting is bad for the other muscles as well. When you’re sitting, the muscles in the lower body aren’t contracting regularly, as they’re designed to do while walking. This can lead to muscle degeneration.
The regular contraction of muscles through walking also aids circulation. When you’re sedentary, blood can pool in your legs. This results in problems ranging from swelling to blood clots.
Take a Stand
NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, created an internal pilot program to explore the use of sit and stand work stations to reduce sedentary work. According to NIOSH, benefits of a sit/stand work station might include:
- Standing more while at work decreases the amount of time spent in sedentary work
- Standing more helps relieve pressure on the lower back, buttocks and legs, and may help reduce compression of the spine arising from long periods of sitting
- Standing more may improve energy levels
- Standing more frequently may improve cognition
- Standing may increase circulation and lead to better blood flow to the brain and other organs
- Standing burns more calories than sitting
- Standing more may assist with energy balance and aid in weight management
- Standing more may improve bone density over time
- Standing more may promote better sleep.
Back injuries can occur suddenly or gradually. Caution employees to be alert for any of these body sensations that could indicate a back sprain or strain injury:
- Sharp pain
- Dull pain
- Pain that comes and goes
- Hot, inflamed feeling
- Unusual tightness
- Unusual muscle weakness or fatigue.
Corrective action can help prevent a minor injury from escalating into a major one. Solutions vary with the situation, but can include encouraging the employee to get medical attention, providing a properly designed and fitted workstation, referring the employee to a physical therapist for a strengthening regime, and encouraging employees to take regular walking or stretch breaks while on the job.