Sitting is undeniably one of the comfiest ways to arrange your body. Almost as good as lounging, really, and just short of "dangling worry-free from hammock." But it has acquired a very bad rap over the past few years. A bad rap it doesn't quite deserve.
Studies say sitting will kill us in all sorts of ways. It will kill us by heart attacks, kidney diseases, chronic diseases, and colorectal cancer. If it doesn't outright murder us, it will shorten our life expectancy and give us mental health issues. Sitting has been compared to smoking. It is the reason I panic-purchased an exercise ball chair from the internet. It is the reason fancier people buy stand-up desks and treadmill desks and have jogging meetings.
Are those of us who spend our days in offices, homes, or cafes huddled in front of our computers, taking notes in lecture halls, or otherwise engaged in activities that generally require butt-to-chair contact really so screwed?
Don't throw out your chair just yet
Before you start hot-gluing an iPad to an elliptical to banish the scourge of sitting, hold up. The same Mayo study condemning sitting also notes that an hour of exercise will offset six to seven hours of sitting, as Time pointed out.
So you can go on the elliptical a few times throughout the day instead of abandoning the seated position forever. You can sit for most of your working day if you want to, and you won't perish from the dastardly side effects of a cozy tush as long as you don't continue sitting all day every day after your work is done.
In fact, cherish your desk-sitting time! It is way better than standing. Standing is tiring and makes your feet swollen. There's plenty of evidence that standing too much is unhealthy too, and that standing desks come with their own hazards, like knee pressure and varicose veins. Dr. Alan Hedge, a professor at Cornell University who leads an ergonomics research group, is not a proponent of the standing desk.
"Standing is more tiring and stressful on the body which is why we sit down to relax. So a standing desk where you stand for too long will cause problems," he told me. Hedge doesn't advocate sitting for too long either — but he recommends changing postures and moving around during breaks.
Doing anything too much is unhealthy. And until we have anti-gravity float-pod workstations with built-in no-impact pilates machines, any position we hold our body in to do sedentary work is going to come with its own set of risks. So take the stairs, do a lap and some calf raises every so often, and don't feel guilty for not buying a standing desk.
Comparing sitting to smoking is both absurd and misleading. It's like comparing doing heroin to eating potato chips. Neither will make you healthier. But one is so much more harmful. If you smoke for six to seven hours a day, no amount of exercise will nuke the damage, just as no amount of exercise can really make up for a heroin addiction. If you sit for six to seven hours a day but lead an active lifestyle during the other hours of the day, you can negate the effects of sitting, just as you can balance out a calorie-heavy snack with a tough workout. Smoking a single cigarette has negative health effects. Sitting for a short time in between activities does not.
How to sit and not die
There is absolutely no denying that many people need to exercise more. Everyone needs to physically exert themselves and keep fit. Sitting at a desk for 12 hours a day and then going to sleep is not healthy. We should all follow Michelle Obama's advice and #getmoving, etc. Mud runs! I am not advocating sloth.
No one should be immobile all day, and sitting still without taking a break and moving around is bad for you. But this does not mean people whose jobs require long stretches of sitting down are destined to Death By Chair. If you sit for a big chunk of the day, you need to be pretty diligent about stretching, going to the gym, taking walks, and keeping active during breaks and on the weekends.
Dr. Jacquelyn Kulinski, the first author on the Mayo Clinic paper about sitting, has plenty of recommendations for work-sitters that don't involve standing around all day like a schmuck. "Consider taking short walks during lunch and throughout the day, using a pedometer to track daily steps, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, hosting walking meetings at work, and replacing a standard desk chair with a fitness ball, a standing desk, or even a treadmill desk, if possible. Park your car in the very back of the parking lot to increase your daily steps," she told Gizmodo.
You don't, however, need to treat sitting like a guilty pleasure or feel bad that you're not shelling out for a standing desk. Sitters of the world, unite! Now let's get up and take a lap.