Workplace health: Sitting is bad for you, but do you know why?
Sitting in a chair all day is not the deciding factor on your health. Yes, sitting at a desk all day in an air-conditioned office building with no natural light will predispose you to injury, but it won’t determine it completely, so the question remains: what are you doing to help yourself? There are some very simple things we can be thinking about if the situation above fits your work environment. But first let’s have a conversation about what sitting all day in an air-conditioned office with no natural light or air can do to your body.
Sitting is relatively a new age thing if you think about evolution. For centuries, we were hunters and gatherers, then came the discovery of agriculture and people started working and cultivating the land. It is only recently that this desk job phenomenon has taken over employment, as we have well and truly entered the technological age.
What sitting does to your body
Now what does sitting for long periods actually do to our bodies?
Being still causes stagnation in the body, but when we move blood pumps quicker, waste removes faster and the lymphatic system works to get rid of toxins. The depth of our breathing becomes greater and we breathe out more toxins too. When we sit for long periods stagnation develops, oxygen is not pumped around the body as fast and waste removal slows. The lymphatic system has no valves and relies on movement to function; therefore, when we sit, the lymphatic system is only working through the movement of your breath. When we sit at the desk, most of us slump at some point, and when we slump we put pressure on our diaphragm, the main muscle for breathing. Our breath tends to get shallower as a result. So less oxygen enters the blood and fewer toxins leave through our breath. When you are busy and stressed you may notice that you also hold your breath and you breathe even shallower without even realising it. When we slump, we also squash all of our abdominal organs and digestion slows down and requires more energy.
So hopefully by now you are getting the picture that if you sleep and are stagnant for eight hours at night, get up and go to work and are stagnant for another eight to 10 hours breathing in stagnant air and then you go home and sit on the couch watching TV for another few hours, the body becomes stiff, digestion slows, you forget to breathe deeply and, eventually, you depart from a state of well-being.
There are simple things that you can do to put your health first. In fact, the answer is always simple and most of us already know what is good for us, yet we seem to ignore that healthy voice inside our heads and fall prey to bad habits. There is no quick fix and your decision to be well lies entirely with your willpower in developing healthy habits in the workplace.
First, you need to make your health a priority; that is the first step to making a healthy habit. No more staying at your desk at lunch because you are busy and you need to get work done. Get out and go for a walk and get some sunlight and fresh air. Move your body. When you make yourself a priority the steps below will become part of your daily routine and will make a significant difference in how you feel.
In order to break up your working day here are some simple steps you can try that will help you maintain wellness at work. These are all common sense tips, but time-starved, deskbound workers often forget how important they are:
Drink more water and stay hydrated
First, if you are going to do anything for your health, start hydrating yourself. The body is made up of 65 percent water and your brain is made up of 80 percent water. Water dilutes toxins in the body, lubricates joints and hydrates your skin among many other things. When toxins pass through your liver and kidneys without the dilution from good hydration, those toxins can damage essential liver and kidney cells. When we are hydrated, our bowel and bladder movements become more regular. Why is this a good thing in the office? Because it gets you out from your desk and moving for a short period to the toilet more often during the day. Yes, breaking up your work with more regular toilet breaks forces you to move more often. Feeding you brain its most valuable nutrient will help you think more clearly and be more productive as a bonus. Being more productive means you will spend less time at your desk.
By getting up every 30 to 45 minutes and taking two to three minutes to stretch, you are breaking the body’s habit of slumping. Not only are you breaking the habit, you are also lengthening muscles that get shortened from slumping. On another positive note, stretching increases blood flow and circulation. By getting up and stretching, you are moving and expanding your ribcage allowing your breath to deepen at the same time by focusing on your breathing while stretching. Stretching appropriately means targeting muscles that get short while seated like the hamstrings and chest muscles.
As previously mentioned, slumping and stress causes us to shorten our breath. Breathing is essential for getting oxygen to our cells and removing waste. The movement of the diaphragm alone helps lymphatic return for waste removal. Doing a breathing exercise in fresh air or just being conscious of your breathing will help. A quick exercise can entail breathing in for five seconds, holding your breath for five seconds and breathing out for five seconds five times.
If you sit all day, then it is your responsibility to make sure that you move when you are not at work. At least 20 minutes a day must be dedicated to moving your body, whether you run, do yoga, go to the gym or just walk.
Stress plays a massive part in your well-being. When we are stressed, our breath tends to be shallow, we walk less, eat convenient comfort food and develop bad habits. If you do not manage your stress well, then it may be a long time before you do something about those bad habits. All of the above mentioned are ways in which you can manage your stress and your health.
By eating healthily you are setting a great foundation of health to deal with all types of stress – physical stresses, including sitting in a chair all day, and mental/emotional stresses, such as heavy workloads. With a healthy diet, you will cope better and have more stamina and productivity than your peers. The fewer the toxins you ingest through your food, the less your body has to work through during the day to get rid of those toxins.
These are six simple steps that we have all heard before, but they are a lot harder to implement and enforce as a routine. These steps, however, will make the difference between waking up stiff, sore and feeling unmotivated, and jumping out of bed with energy ready to start your day. They also can prevent repetitive strain injuries and headaches and help you become pain free. Put your health as a priority for at least 28 days and soon it will become a habit. If you are already injured, then you have left it too late, and need to see a professional first to get your injury treated while implementing these simple steps.
The writer, Dr Allison Van Ommen, is an osteopath based in South Melbourne at Without Limits Health & Osteopathy. She is a former elite water polo athlete having played in the European Professional Water Polo League. She is also a previous member of the Victorian Tigers National League Women’s Water Polo Team and the Victorian Institute of Sport squad.