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Gilles Beaudin

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

It has never been easier to be sedentary. In today's society, you can get by with very little movement. Sitting has been engineered into your life, from transportation to work to home. But don't buy shares in chair manufacturers yet.

Seventeenth-century physician Bernardino Ramazzini was the first to note a link between sedentary behaviour and deteriorating health. Today, various studies correlate total sitting time to cardio-metabolic diseases and untimely death. A recent review article out of Australia reported decreased insulin sensitivity after just one day of prolonged sitting.

This doesn't take musculoskeletal problems into account. Because we are not biomechanically built to sit for long periods of time, our joints take a beating. The repeated stress on your neck and lower back, the rounded shoulders, can all be problematic, even if you sit with proper posture. Staying in the same position for long periods is likely to create tight muscles.

We try to compensate by hitting the squash court at lunch, jogging with the dog or playing a game of pickup hockey. But the fact remains sitting wreaks havoc on your health even if you exercise.

After studying new data from a 2009 follow-up conducted on the men and women who originally participated in the Canadian Fitness Survey of 1981, researchers reported an association between sitting time and mortality regardless of physical activity.

Researcher David Dunstan suggested that too much sitting should be considered an important factor in the physical activity and health equation. In a 2012 review paper he reported that even after seven hours a week of moderate to vigorous activity, the risks of death increased with TV watching time. So by sitting less, your workouts are more protective.

Last week, the advocacy group Participaction declared Sneak It In Week, urging Canadians to remember to keep moving throughout the day.

Our ancestors had to hunt and work hard physically just to survive. The human body is not very different than it was thousands of years ago. But technology took physical labour out of the equation for many of us. So what's a desk dweller to do? ParticipAction's week may be over, but these are habits to adopt every week:

  • Stand up from your computer every 30 to 60 minutes. Even if you are chained to your desk, breaking up your sitting time in smaller chunks is beneficial. Just cutting it by 25 per cent has a big impact on your overall health.
  • Take stretching breaks to alleviate tension. Muscles that stay in a shortened position for long periods will have a tendency to be tight and have a reduced range of motion.
  • Stand up during phone calls to give your spine a break. As ParticipAction president and chief executive officer Elio Antunes recently told CTV: “A lot of people with sore backs are due to long-term sitting.”
  • Walk to a co-worker’s desk. Every step counts toward the 10,000-a-day total, the generally accepted threshold for health improvements.
  • Take standing breaks during long meetings. It may stir your creativity and make the meeting more productive.
  • Choose stairs over escalators – every bit of activity counts, and contracting muscles are anti-inflammatory.
  • Try a standing desk. When properly adjusted it will activate your postural muscles.

Now that I think about it, I spent a lot of time sitting while I wrote this piece. I should go out for a walk, or at least stand up for a few minutes. How long have you been sitting? Get moving. It's one small step for you, one giant step for your health.

Gilles Beaudin is a registered clinical exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic Canada.

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