The Sitting Disease: How your Workweek Habits are Damaging your Health

Catherine Mulder on

Woman lounging on a couch using her phone

“We are sitting ourselves to death.”

A shocking, yet true statement from Dr. James Levine about the unintentional danger we put ourselves in each day just by living our lives. Our health classes teach us the risk of things like eating too much junk food, or the dangers of smoking - yet have us in a system where we often spend hours a day sitting down. When we graduate, we move onto a university where we spend more time sitting, or to a job where we most likely spend our days at a desk. However, we hardly ever reflect on how we are actively participating in this dangerous habit. It is so bad, that Dr. Levine claims it is “more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting” (Muller).

While it is not a disease officially recognized by the medical community, it is most certainly affecting individuals on a medical level. A study from the American Journal of Preventive medicine concludes that individuals who are sedentary for more than 7+ hours are more likely to develop alzheimers, depression and dementia. This is just one statistic amongst many that demonstrate the very real concerns that doctors have with the way we are living our lives.

We are a very work-driven culture, and a large portion of the population builds their lives around their careers. While this may be problematic in a variety of areas, an area that is often overlooked is the way our physical work environment affects our health. Mentally, there is the risk of burnout and Zoom fatigue, but physically we often overlook sitting. As absurd as it sounds, we are becoming victims to our lifestyles. In fact, 86% of Americans have careers that require them to sit, or remain stagnant for most hours of the day (Ergotron). While this environment may not necessarily be enjoyable, it is also unhealthy. Dr. Elliot O’Connor from University of Washington Sports Medicine stated that:

If that alone is not scary enough, O’Connor also stated the Sitting Disease causes:

This means we are spending roughly 21 hours of our day being sedentary. We transition from our beds in the morning, to our cars for our commute and then to sit in an office chair all day - only to repeat again the next. Plus, the screen time doesn’t just end after the work day. We are also absorbed by our cell phones and television, which equates to about 80,000 hours of sitting in our lifetime (Sharifi). Combine this with poor sleeping habits and eating food that doesn’t nourish the body - and the risks only rise. It is clear we are part of a structure that can feel limiting when it comes to taking care of our physical health, so how can we help?

When I first discovered “The Sitting Disease” I was intrigued by the dangers of something so simple. Although I spent 5 days a week sitting at my home office, I thought my daily hour workouts would cancel out the risks. While it certainly lowers the risk, it does not make me immune to the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle. After doing some more research, I learned through a study from the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology that standing burned .15 more calories a minute in comparison to sitting. Not only did it burn more calories but slowly improved posture and muscle strength in comparison to someone who sat instead. Now, I make it a goal to spend at least half the day standing, and hold myself accountable to utilize my breaks.

As the workforce continues to move forward, it is important that companies start to educate themselves on the risks, and prioritize evolving into a healthier work environment. The culture of the working world must shift to be more accommodating, and begin to normalize taking routine breaks for health. An investment into the mental and physical health of your team, is ultimately an investment into the success of your company.