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Do You Sit at a Desk All Day? You Need to Read This

Here's how sitting could be hurting your health, and what to do about it.

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Art Credit: Emi Ito

Are you bound to a desk or seated for most of the day? You've probably heard it before, but get up and walk around. Sitting for too long may not seem like the biggest risk to our health, but sedentary actions like sitting with poor posture or staring at a screen for too long can add up to discomfort and pain. Going without breaks from sitting could even cause inadvertent damage to your long-term health.

Research from the University of Missouri shows that staying seated for long periods of time—more than half of the average person's waking hours—contributes to your risk of metabolic syndrome, which causes abnormalities linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Apart from higher risks of heart attack, stroke, and death, those who sit a great deal also have lower life expectancies and slower metabolisms.

“Prolonged sitting has been shown to disrupt metabolic function, resulting in increased plasma triglyceride levels, decreased levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and decreased insulin sensitivity,” Dr. Hidde van der Ploeg, a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health in Australia, told Time's Healthland in 2012.

Van der Ploeg and colleagues' research found that sitting for eleven or more hours per day increased risk of death by 40 percent, regardless of other activity levels.

Here are a few ways tapping away at a keyboard for hours could be hurting you, along with a few tips on how to give your body the extra love it needs to stay healthy.

Damaged Organs

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You know that muscles burn less fat when you aren't moving. But did you know that blood also flows more slowly during a long sit? This allows fatty acids to more easily clog the heart and is also why prolonged sitting is linked to high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Those with the most sedentary time have double the risk of cardiovascular disease than those with the least.

Sitting also has a strong link to diabetes. Your pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that carries glucose to cells to produce energy. Cells in idle muscles don't respond as efficiently to insulin, so the pancreas produces more and more. This overproduction of insulin can lead to diabetes, and the effect is surprisingly quick. A study published in 2012 found lowered insulin response after just one day of prolonged sitting.

Weakened Muscles

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Great news for those who move, stand, or sit up straight—you're using those abs. But for those who tend to slump or hunch over in a chair, you aren't using your abdominal muscles at all. Weak abs can result in a tight back and exaggerated back arch, limiting your range of motion. This in turn results in limited mobility, which can carry through to the rest of your life. Elderly people, for example, tend to fall due to decreased hip and back mobility. Weak abdominal and back muscles hurt your balance and stability. They also lessen your ability to maintain power in everyday movements as simple as walking.

Decreased Brain Function

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Physical movement helps blood and oxygen flow efficiently through the body. Exercise triggers brain chemicals such as endorphins, which reduce stress and enhance our mood. Another immediate benefit of exercise is a boost in productivity. Research shows that cardiovascular exercise makes the distribution of memory and attentional resources more efficient, thereby improving executive functioning. So when we're sedentary for long periods of time, it's not just our muscles and organs that slow down—our brain function decreases as well.

A Bad Back

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Think you're too young to suffer from back pain? Think again. Regular movement allows the soft discs in your spine to expand and contract like sponges, soaking up fresh blood and nutrients. Sitting for long periods of time causes collagen to harden around nearby tendons and ligaments. This increases your risk of herniated discs or abnormal curvature of the spine.

If you're experiencing back pain, you may have to check your sitting form. Sitting correctly means your back is straight, and you're not leaning forward. Shoulders should be relaxed and arms close to your sides. Elbows should bend at a 90-degree angle. Both feet should be flat on the floor. You may have support for your lower back such as a pillow or an ergonomic chair.

Poor Leg Circulation and Weakened Leg Bones

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You already know that sitting for long periods of time slows blood circulation. But it also causes fluid to pool in the legs. Poor leg circulation can cause unpleasant problems such as swollen ankles and varicose veins. But dangerous blood clots called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) can also form. DVT can cause pain and swelling; even worse, it can lead to death if blood clots break loose and travel to an area of your body, like your lungs, that can cause serious blockage of blood flow.

Weight-bearing activities such as walking and running allow you to move against gravity while upright. These movements stimulate hip and lower-body bones to grow thicker, denser, and stronger. Not giving your bones a chance to grow can lead to increased risk of osteoporosis, which is especially concerning for women. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, of the estimated ten million Americans who have osteoporosis, eight million (or 80 percent) are female.

What can I do about it?

01. Replace your chair with an exercise ball. Sitting on something unstable like an exercise ball or a backless chair forces you to engage your core muscles.

02. Stretch. Stretching for five to ten minutes a day refreshes your muscles and your joints. You'll increase your flexibility and mobility while decreasing your risk of injury. And you'll allow blood and oxygen to flow through parts of your muscles that need it most.

03. Stroll. Use opportunities like phone calls and breaks between meetings to go for a walk or pace about your office. Even moving at a slow pace of 1 mph burns twice the calories of sitting.

04. Sit, stand, and repeat. Try to spend 50 percent of the day standing and 50 percent sitting. Consider investing in an adjustable keyboard stand or desk. If you can't stand at your desk, stand up every half hour and walk a few paces back and forth before returning to your task.

05. The cat & cow pose. Try these two yoga moves to improve back extension and flexion. While kneeling, bring your palms down shoulder-width apart, and plant them flat in front of you. To do the cat pose, pull your belly button in so that your back arches up as you gaze down at the floor. For the cow pose, bring your belly button toward the floor so that your back arches down as you look straight ahead. Hold either pose for at least five seconds up to as long as you feel comfortable, breathing deeply throughout.