What Happens to Your Body When You Sit Too Much?

Medically Reviewed on 12/3/2021

Studies show that people who sit for over 8 hours each day have similar health risks to smokers and people who are obese. Sitting too much can increase the risk of certain health conditions including heart disease.
Studies show that people who sit for over 8 hours each day have similar health risks to smokers and people who are obese. Sitting too much can increase the risk of certain health conditions including heart disease.

People who sit too much lead a sedentary lifestyle, meaning they don't move their bodies very often. According to the American Psychological Association, as many as 50 million people in the US lead such a lifestyle.

People with a sedentary lifestyle don't do physical activity at work, don't follow a regular exercise program, and don't do much physical yard work or housework.

Prolonged sitting is on the rise, according to one study. Between 2007 and 2016, the average sitting time increased by about 1 hour.

The risks of too much sitting

Studies show that people who sit for over 8 hours each day have similar health risks to smokers and people who are obese. Sitting too much can increase the risk of certain health conditions including:

There are also lots of little ways that too much sitting can affect your health.

How does sitting affect the body?

The human body performs optimally when upright most of the time. When you sit too often, physical changes start to happen to your body.

Your neck muscles tighten. When you're sitting and looking at a screen, your neck is actually curved slightly upwards compared to the normal curvature. This puts pressure on the trapezius muscles in your shoulders. Over time, you develop shoulder tension, and your back and shoulders start to curve forward. This places more tension on your lower back.

As more time passes, the spinal discs in your lower back may start to bulge from the tension. This is also called a herniated disc. In some people, it causes no symptoms, but for others, it can be very painful. As your discs bulge, your back muscles tighten to try to hold everything in place, which makes movement difficult.

Too much sitting can also change the general posture of your hips, making the muscles configured better for sitting than standing or walking. These weaknesses can lead to knee/ankle pain and flat feet. They also, again, put more pressure on your lower back.

The slower metabolism and weight gain that can come from sitting too much also put more stress on the joints. This can increase joint injuries and pain caused by being sedentary. 

SLIDESHOW

The 14 Most Common Causes of Fatigue See Slideshow

How to counteract the effects of sitting too much

Luckily, there are things you can do to counteract or slow the effects of sitting, even if you have a job that requires you to sit down a lot.

Research shows that doing at least 60 to 75 minutes of moderately intense activity each day can counteract the negative side effects of sitting. 

Examples of moderate physical activity include:

  • Walking at a pace of 4 miles per hour
  • Physical cleaning tasks like vacuuming
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Cycling at 10 miles per hour
  • Playing tennis

There are also lots of things you can do to stay active at home and at work:

At work

  • If you have the option, try a desk that can change from sitting to standing. You can also have different workspaces that offer sitting and standing options if a changeable desk is not possible.
  • You can also position your desk above a treadmill so you can get some steps in while working.
  • Stand up and walk around every half hour.
  • Stand up and walk around your workspace while on phone calls or doing something away from the computer.
  • When possible, have walking work meetings. Then, everyone can reap the benefits of movement.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator if possible.
  • Walk or ride your bike to work. If it's too far, walk or ride your bike part of the way and take public transit the rest of the way.
  • If you already take public transit to work, get off one stop early and walk or bike the rest of the way.
  • Stand up on public transit instead of sitting.
  • If you must drive to work, park at the far end of the parking lot or a few blocks away and walk the rest of the way.
  • Walk over to colleagues who work in the same office as you instead of e-mailing or texting.
  • Take your lunch break away from your desk.
  • Move your trash can away from your desk so you have to get up to throw things away.

At home

  • Set a timer on your TV so you remember to get up and walk around even if you're binge-watching.
  • Do standing chores like ironing or cleaning while watching TV.
  • Listen to podcasts or audiobooks while walking to make it more engaging and enticing.
  • Try putting items away one at a time instead of making fewer trips to get more steps in.
  • If it's raining out, try an active indoor activity like a fitness video, yoga, or dancing.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Medically Reviewed on 12/3/2021
References

American Psychological Association: "Physical Inactivity Poses Greatest Health Risk to Americans, Research Shows."

Better Health Channel: "The dangers of sitting: why sitting is the new smoking."

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Obesity Prevention Source."

Health Matters: "Is Too Much Sitting Harming Your Body?"

Mayo Clinic: "What are the risks of sitting too much?"

Yale Medicine: "Why Is Sitting so Bad for Us?"