How Sitting is Killing You — and How to Stand Up to Your Chair (Part 1)

The evil desk chair!

Writer’s Note: This is turning out to be a huge post, so I’m going to break this up into 4 parts. If you feel like something is missing, stay tuned for part 2, 3, and 4.

The body is an incredible machine.  It has a tremendous capacity to heal, grow,  and survive.  The more we use it, the better it gets at everything- utilizing fuels, fighting disease, performing better,  thinking better,  focusing better. But the reverse is also true. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Your body tries to be as efficient as possible, which means the less you do, the fewer resources your devotes to performing certain tasks. Enter general fatigue, weight gain, getting sick all the time, muscle and joint pain, heart disease, diabetes, lack of focus. Today I want to you to think about your day-to-day habits and how they contribute to your every day health. I am not going to cite any articles with this post. This time I want you to use logic to investigate what is going on with your body. Feel free to fact check anything I say today. Let’s start… with the chair.

How your chair is killing you

Since I seem to be a big fan of math, let’s do some. Take a look at your day. We have 24 possible hours to work with each day. Assuming you get at least 6 hours of sleep a night, you then have 18 hours of awake time. Of those 18 hours, most of us need to work for 8 of them. Let’s assume, and be incredibly generous, that you’re probably sitting for 7 hours out of your 8 hour work day. IF you get to go somewhere for lunch, you might get to walk around for 20 minutes max, but the rest of your lunch break is probably sitting, so you’re probably closer to 7.5 hours of sitting at a desk– I’ll cut you some slack. Add in commute time. Those of you lucky to work close to home might have 30 minutes of driving or public-transportation-riding a day. Those of you less lucky (or less smart, like myself) might spend upwards of 2 hours of sitting in a car or train each and every day. Then you get home, make dinner (or order out), then sit on the couch and watch TV, browse the internet, read a book, fall asleep. And you probably do those things for the rest of the night until you go to bed for the night. Let’s see: get home at 6 pm, go to bed at midnight– that’s an extra 6 hours of sitting. Add it all up, and we have 8 hours at work, 0.5 to 2 hours commuting, and 6 hours of sitting at night. Which means if you’re the average American, you have somewhere between  14.5 and 16 hours of sitting each day. As mentioned, that’s a generous underestimation. The rest of your day is very low intensity activity. We know this already; you spend most of your day in a chair–who cares?

Your Heart

Some facts: Blood is a thick, sticky fluid. It does everything from providing oxygen to your brain and muscles, to transporting nutrients like fats and sugars to all of your cells, to fighting off infections. Your circulatory system is a network of arteries, veins, arterioles, venules, capillaries, and large organs that filter and transport your blood to different places. These pipes are stretchy, smooth, and (some are) muscular. The arteries have the capacity to expand on every heart beat, then contract to maintain the pressure of blood flow so that oxygenated blood can reach any part of the body. Your veins rely on your muscles to return blood to the heart. They contain one-way valves to prevent back flow and fluid build-up into the surrounding tissues. Your body can control where to increase or decrease blood flow based on the demands of different parts of the body. Your blood has the incredible ability to clot. Your body knows that moving blood is a good thing, and stagnant blood (like outside your body when you get a cut, or inside your body when you get a bruise or a stroke) is bad, and that stopping blood flow to the wrong places is important.

Why sitting is bad: Exercise is a great way to keep the cardiovascular system healthy. It stretches out the arteries and veins, forcing blood through at high pressures to clear out any debris and make sure that the walls of your vessels are stretchy and smooth. When you sit all the time, that doesn’t happen. Over time, if the blood vessels aren’t stretched and exercised, they lose their capacity to stretch. This condition left to worsen over time becomes atherosclerosis, a hardening of the blood vessels (also caused by smoking). There’s Heart Disease #1. When the blood vessels are unable to stretch or contract, your body needs to keep your blood vessels as small as possible in order to keep your blood pressure high enough to reach the farthest parts of the body. If you know anything about fluid dynamics, small blood vessels with a high volume of blood means a constant high pressure. This is chronic High Blood Pressure (HBP), which leads to strokes and aneurysms due to too much pressure against the walls of your blood vessels. Those are Heart Diseases #2, #3 and #4. The other problem that occurs when your blood vessels don’t stretch is things tend to stick to them. Typically a minor opening in a blood vessel (which happens all the time) is easily repaired and exercised into normal function again–the capacity to heal. In a dysfunctional blood vessel, the minor opening doesn’t heal properly, and can allow some fat or blood clot to get stuck to the surface or between the cells of the blood vessel. The body recognizes that this is a bad thing and sends a bunch of other clotting tools or white blood cells (your body’s defenses) to go take care of the problem –also part of your body’s capacity to heal. Unfortunately, these extra resources sent to the damage site are part of inflammation and cause the wall of the blood vessel to swell, decreasing the the amount of space inside the vessel itself. Often, the white blood cell sent to remove that blood clot or fat will end up staying inside the wall of the blood vessel, resulting in a chronic swelling of that vessel. As more and more inflammation occurs, the blood vessel gets smaller and smaller, allowing more and more things to stick to it, creating blood clots or narrowed arteries. Blood clots and narrowed arteries can lead to different kinds of strokes, pulmonary (or other) embolisms, and heart attacks. Those are Heart Diseases #5 and #6. The last one I’ll go over today is your veins. When you sit all day and you don’t use any muscles other than those to click a mouse, you set yourself up for a lot of problems. As mentioned, veins do not have as much muscle in them, and they rely on the rhythm of your body to pump blood back to your heart. What rhythm of the body you ask? Ever wonder why it’s so hard to stand completely still for long periods of time? The muscles in your legs (and the rest of the body) constantly need to contract to pump blood back to the heart. The reason you can’t stand still is that your muscles are always contracting outside of your control. When they don’t, blood and fluid builds up in your feet (or hands) causing pain and swelling in the feet. Same thing happens when you sit all day without really using your legs to pump the blood and fluid all the way back up to your heart. This means swelling in the legs and feet. Sure, you can just get up and move around to keep that fluid from sitting around for too long. But how many of us actually let ourselves get up and stretch every now and then? When that fluid buildup happens frequently, those one way valves get worn down, and the cells surrounded by that fluid cannot function properly. When we can no longer effectively return blood to the heart, known as peripheral venous disease (PVD) , we end up with excessive swelling in the rest of the body, especially the feet, edema, and the formation of blood clots. Those are Heart Diseases #7 and #8.

How to stand up to your chair: Before we go any further, I wanted to let you know that while all of those things are scary, there is plenty you can do to fight them, even at the more progressive stages of those diseases. Your body has a tremendous capacity to heal. I’m going to say that over and over again. Regular exercise also exercises your blood vessels. It helps keep those vessels stretchy and keeps the muscles in the arteries strong enough to keep blood flowing continuously. Exercise helps clear out any clots that might be forming and reduces inflammation in the vessels themselves. Exercise keeps your blood vessels open wide enough to allow plenty of blood through for the rest of the day. And all you need to do to keep the swelling from building up in the legs is get up and go for a walk every now and then. Challenge the system, and the system will work to heal itself and perform under all conditions. Leave the system to fend for itself, and it will break down and leave you open to disease.

Stay tuned for part 2!



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