Spending hours sitting during your day might seem normal, but it can damage your body even if you exercise regularly. If you sit most of your day at a desk, watch a lot of TV, or sit on a long commute, you have a greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, and bone problems.
Researchers aren’t exactly sure if sitting directly causes health problems, but the dangers of sitting are linked to physical changes that can cause disease.
Sitting for a long time slows your metabolism and interferes with your body’s ability to manage blood sugar, fat, and blood pressure. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why this happens, but it’s likely that sitting relaxes your large muscles, which stops sugar use and storage.
Normally, when you eat food, your blood sugar levels rise. Your pancreas releases insulin in response, which sends glucose, or sugar, to your liver and muscles to be made into glycogen for energy. Once your blood glucose levels fall, your liver and muscles release the glycogen back into your blood to keep your glucose stable and provide energy for your body.
It’s thought that when you sit too long, your muscles relax and don’t process blood sugar very well. Blood sugar levels stay high, and your pancreas continues to pump out insulin to try and control it.
If this continues, your pancreas can have trouble making insulin, and your cells eventually become resistant to insulin and no longer respond. The result is type 2 diabetes.
At the same time, sitting also blocks your ability to break down fat. Your body makes an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase that helps break down fat in your blood. When you sit, your body slows down enzyme production by 90%. Without this enzyme, your body can’t break down and use the fat, so it stores it, which leads to weight gain.
Exercise and calorie restriction can help burn fat, but if you spend most of your time sitting, this won’t happen to the same degree. If you continue to gain weight, your risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity increases.
Regular exercise makes your heart stronger and allows it to pump more blood with less effort. If you don’t exercise or you sit too much, your heart has to work harder, and you have a risk of high blood pressure.
High blood pressure is when the force of blood against your vessel walls is higher than normal. It stresses and damages your vessels, which can lead to plaque or fatty buildup. Sitting also slows down your blood flow, which can lead to a buildup of fatty acids. Fatty buildup in your blood vessels causes them to narrow and can lead to heart disease.
Sitting also causes poor circulation in your legs and feet. Blood and fluids pool and cause achy, swollen legs, ankles, and feet. In severe cases, prolonged sitting and a generally inactive lifestyle can lead to a blood clot deep in your vein called deep vein thrombosis.
Poor circulation also affects your brain. Blood brings oxygen and nutrients to your organs, and as blood flow slows, your brain gets less oxygen.
Exercise and activities that encourage good balance and posture help build strong bones. One of the dangers of sitting too much is that your bones weaken, leading to a higher risk for osteoporosis, fractures, and pain.
Being sedentary also leads to weak muscles. As both your bones and muscles lose strength, your entire skeletal system is affected. Bone spurs, osteoarthritis, and inflammation can all occur because of a lack of exercise and activity.
Lower back pain from sitting too much is common. Sitting for long periods of time puts pressure on your spine and hip and shoulder joints. Slouching while sitting at your desk, or while on your phone, leads to poor posture.
Your muscles compensate for how you sit, which can lead to weak core muscles, tight hips, and weak butt muscles. This leads to less spine flexibility, stress on your lower back, and ongoing back and hip pain.
You can be sitting too much even if you exercise regularly, which can lead to lots of health problems. If you spend a lot of time behind a desk or commuting, find ways to lower your sitting time throughout the day and get more physical activity.
Add movement to your work day and travel time. You can stand up and walk around every 30 minutes, take a short walk on your coffee break, walk while you’re on the phone, and stand on the train. Also, make sure to get 150 minutes of exercise every week, too.
American Heart Association: "Atherosclerosis."
Beaumont Health: "How Sitting Too Much Can Lead to Heart Disease."
Harvard Medical School Harvard Health Publishing: "The dangers of sitting."
Mayo Clinic: "Exercise: A drug-free approach to lowering high blood pressure," "Osteoporosis," "Type 2 diabetes."
Nakrani, M., Wineland, R., Anjum, F. StatPearls, "Physiology, Glucose Metabolism," StatPearls Publishing, 2021.
National Health Service: "Why we should sit less."
Obesity Action Coalition: "Understanding Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes."
Yale Medicine: "Why Is Sitting so Bad for Us?"
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