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Why Sitting Too Much Is Bad for Your Health

It’s no secret that we live in a society that spends too much time sitting, but have you considered the toll it’s taking on your bones and joints? Whether we blame binge watching Netflix, laboring over keyboards at work, or scrolling through social media – medical and exercise research has linked our increasingly sedentary lifestyles to many chronic diseases and even premature death.

*Source: AsapSCIENCE is a YouTube channel created by Canadian YouTubers Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown. The channel produces weekly videos that touch on many different topics of science.

Despite increased CrossFit boxes and gyms across the country, evidence published last year in JAMA confirmed we’re not moving nearly enough. Researchers estimate that one in four adults sit for more than eight hours a day and more than 60% of us spend more than 2 hours a day sitting watching TV and videos. We can now add the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic --- with gyms, schools and parks closed, sportingactivities cancelled and many families ‘sheltering at home’ --- with even fewer activity options than ever before. For years the CDC has recommended at least two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week. For the first time, recent Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans specify the importance of both increasing moderate to vigorous physical activity and reducing time spent sitting.

"Motion is Life and Life is Motion." - Dr. Calendine

As you might expect, spending eight-plus hours a day moving little more than our fingers can’t be great for our bodies. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, anxiety, depression and premature death have all been associated with excessive sitting and lying around. For extra motivation to get off the couch and get moving, lets spend a few minutes focusing on the impact of sitting too much on your bones and joints.

3 Reasons Sitting Too Much Is Bad For Your Bones

Sitting Too Much Increases Back and Joint Pain

After a short time sitting without a break, your postural muscles (the muscles along your core,back and legs that work to keep you upright) begin to lose their ability to function properly. As your postural muscles weaken and you begin to slump, your hip joints and low back will begin to suffer. With prolonged sitting, the hip flexors—important muscles that lift the knee and bring the thigh towards your body— will weaken and shrink, and limit your ability to fully straighten your hip. Hip flexor weakening and shortening can lead to limitation of hip movement and pain in the hip and low back.

Prolonged sitting with poor posture can weaken hip flexor muscles.

Sitting for hours at a time (especially with poor posture) can cause wear and tear on your low back and joints. No matter how much you try to keep yourself from slouching, long hours spent sitting inevitably end up with your back bent forward and your shoulder blades slumped into a slouch.  This increased pressure with prolonged sitting is hard on the facet joints in your lower spine and contributes to arthritis and low back pain. According to a 2015 review of research published in PLOS Onethere is a significant association between the amount of time a person spends seated and the intensity of their lower back pain.

Low back pain from the facet joints can radiate down into the buttocks, hip and down the back of the upper leg. 

Sitting Too Much Will Makes Your Bones Weaker

Bone is living tissue that is constantly being broken down and replaced. Bone thinning or Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn't keep up with the loss of old bone. When you're young, your body makes new bone faster than it breaks down old bone and your bone mass increases. As people age, bone mass is lost faster than it's created. This bone “thinning” (Osteoporosis) causes bones to become brittle and increases your risk of fracture. Osteoporosis-related fractures most commonly occur in the hip, wrist or spine. In older adults, the natural aging process, increased sedentary hours and decreased weight-bearing activity can all contribute to accelerated bone loss and weakness.

Over 80% of fractures in people 50+ are related to Osteoporosis.

Even in older adults, increasing weight-bearing exercise can increase bone formation to help prevent and limit normal age-related bone loss. Activity is recommended that loads the bones in different directions and provides full range of motion for the involved joints. While body-weight provides the resistance necessary for many exercises, the upper body and torso bones can be stimulated by resistance exercise using bands or light weights. Safety should always be your first priority. There can be risk of injury with any exercise activity, and it's always best to discuss exercise goals with your physician or other trained professional.

Sitting Too Much Will Cause Weight Gain

Obesity frequently contributes to joint damage and osteoarthritis—a progressive wear- and-tear disease of the joints. The impact of obesity is especially seen in osteoarthritis of the hip and knee joints. As obesity becomes more prevalent, we continue to see a rise in arthritis. A person with obesity is around 60 percent more likely to develop arthritis than someone of normal body weight.

For every extra ONE pound we gain, it puts FOUR pounds of pressure on your knees … with every step. -Cory Calendine, MD

People who sit for long periods of time are more likely to be overweight or obese. Sitting or lying down uses far less energy than standing and moving. Previous studies have comparatively shown that office workers can burn up to 1,000 fewer calories per day when compared to agricultural workers. The fewer calories you burn, the more likely you are to gain weight. This is one reason that sedentary behavior is so closely linked to obesity. Previous research has shown that people with obesity sit for an average of two hours longer each day than do people with a normal weight.

Even working out 7 hours a week (far more than the suggested 2-3 hrs recommended) can't reverse the effects of sitting 7 hours at a time.

Recent research suggests there's more to the problem than simply the calorie-burning deficit. Studies specifically focusing on sedentary behavior have provided compelling evidence that the overall amount of daily sitting time—regardless of whether a person engages in moderately vigorous exercise—may be linked to several chronic health conditions, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and earlier mortality in adults. One study that measured metabolic markers revealed that one hour of intense exercise did not make up for the negative effects of inactivity when other hours were spent sitting. A review of 47 studies found that prolonged sitting was strongly linked to negative health outcomes, regardless of additional exercise levels. As expected, the negative effects were greater for people who rarely exercised, but exercise alone did not completely offset the negative effects of prolonged sitting.

Summary: Prolonged Sitting And Your Bones

Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers and premature death. In addition, prolonged sitting can weaken your bones and joints, increase your risk of fracture and impact your daily quality of life with increased risk of back and joint pain. New research from the American College of Sports Medicine showed that we have to get moving more and focus on increasing the intensity of our physical activity. Participants that replaced some of their sedentary time with light-intensity physical activity measurably improved their health. Greater health improvements were seen when sedentary time was replaced by activity that was of at least moderate-intensity.

If you have found effective ways in your life to increase your activity levels, especially during the recent quarantine, please let us know so we can share with others. In the weeks to come we'll be sharing additional resources for bone and joint health exercises. Please subscribe to blog or contact us with additional questions or concerns.

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Cory Calendine, MD is an Orthopaedic Surgeon and founding partner of the Bone and Joint Institute of Tennessee at Williamson County Hospital in Franklin, TN. Dr. Calendine is an expert in Joint Replacement, specializing in Hip and Knee Surgery. From diagnosis through treatment, the Orthopaedic Surgical experts at the Bone and Joint Institute use the latest techniques and technology to improve care for people with musculoskeletal problems. For more information, please contact our office or schedule your appointment today.  

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