The endless hours working behind a desk, cars, Netflix, and all the other upgrades and conveniences of 21st century living that have engineered out physical activity mean that it is no longer a routine, built-in, and necessary part of our lives. But it’s not just the sitting, it the prolonged and uninterrupted sitting. Something that has only grown worse since the global pandemic.
How Sitting Affects Health
Alas, humans were built to move and now a growing body of research shows that such constant sitting adversely impacts our metabolic health, slowing metabolism, and negatively affecting blood sugar and blood pressure.
Studies associate spending too many hours sitting to weight gain, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, but also link it to other health conditions such as dementia, several cancers, depression, and early death.
Why Too Much Sitting is Bad
When we sit our leg muscles, which are the largest muscles in the body, are idle. This affects our metabolic health in several ways.
Blood sugar control. Being inactive, the leg muscles require minimal energy and so take in little fuel (sugar), interfering with blood sugar regulation. After eating a meal the sugar isn’t removed, which leads to it accumulating in the blood and increases the risk of diabetes.
Fat metabolism (burning). The lack of movement also reduces the release of biochemical substances by the muscle that help break down fat in the bloodstream after eating, resulting in higher cholesterol levels and increasing the risk or cardiovascular disease.
For all our technological advances to make life easier and more comfortable, we’ve forgotten that our body is essentially the same as it always was – adapted for consistent muscle activity throughout the day. In other words, regular muscular activity is how we function optimally. And you can’t outrun it with workouts.
Sitting too much is not the same as too little exercise. Prolonged sitting is itself a risk factor for poor health, independent and separate from the risk factor of physical inactivity. While exercising for an hour after work has benefits, it does not cancel out the effects of being inactive the rest of the day. Indeed, sitting can make you resistant to some of the positive effects of exercise.
For example, after working out the body’s fat burning ability increases, so you store less fat. However, if you’re sedentary the rest of the day (roughly less than 5000 steps per day), this fat-burning effect of exercise is blunted, resulting in the body storing more fat. On the other hand, being active throughout the day (8500 steps per day) appears to protect the metabolism against this negative effect. On average, adults in the United States take just 5117 steps per day.
Sit 30 minutes, Move for 3
But all’s not lost. Where there is a problem, there’s a solution. Studies suggest that the answer lies in breaking up sitting with regular short breaks. Recent research shows that getting up every 30 minutes for 3 minutes may help mitigate the adverse health effects of prolonged sitting. Researchers found these micro-breaks in which participants performed low-to-moderate-intensity physical activity such as walking, stair-climbing, and bodyweight squats, improved blood sugar control and cholesterol.
How to move more? Set a timer or use a phone to remind you to move every 30 minutes. Any activity goes, including grabbing a coffee, refilling your water bottle, bathroom breaks, and pacing while on the phone. The more steps you can take or the more vigorous the activity during these breaks, the greater the effect.
Depending on whether you’re in the office or working from home, inject some extra movement into an otherwise passive workday, with these 3 minute workouts.
1 Stair Climbing
If you’re going to a meeting or just out for a coffee run take the stairs instead of the elevator. Or, if you’re not heading anywhere, just pop out of your office into the stairway for a mini workout, walking up and down the stairs.
Take care on the descents. You can make things tougher by taking two steps at a time on the way up and then walk downstairs to recover.
2 Squat + Push-up Pyramid
Squats work your glutes, thighs (quads and hamstrings), and calves. Squats also target your core, improve ankle and hip mobility, and a quick set provides a mini cardio workout that will get your heart pumping. Simply do squats, or to make it a more challenging workout and incorporate push-ups.
Squats and push-ups are the cornerstone of bodyweight training. Between them, these two mighty exercises work virtually every muscle in your body and are simple (but not easy) to perform.
How to do this workout: For this workout, perform 10 squats and then 10 push-ups. Immediately do 9 squats and 9 push-ups and then 8 squats and 8 push-ups. Keep doing one less rep per set until you do 1 squat and 1 push-up or run out of time.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands by your sides.
- Push your hips back, bend your knees and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor.
- Stand back up and repeat.
- Place your hands on the floor shoulder-width apart. Walk your feet back so your body forms a straight line.
- Bend your arms and lower your chest to the floor.
- Push back up and repeat.
- If you cannot manage a full push-up, bend your legs and rest on your knees.
3 Wall Sits
Build strength and endurance with wall squats, aka wall sits. Wall squats use something called an isometric contraction to work your leg muscles. An isometric contraction involves lots of muscle tension but no actual movement. You can do this exercise without leaving your office.
- Lean your back against a smooth, sturdy wall and slide down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Move your feet so that your shins are perfectly vertical.
- Push your back against the wall and hold this position (but not your breath!) for as long as is comfortable.
Add an element of upper body work to this exercise by placing your hands together in front of your chest and pushing your palms together as hard as you can.
4 Jump Rope
Jumping rope is a super convenient workout – all you need is a cheap $10.00 rope and a bit of space. It can take a little time to master the technique of jumping rope, but once you’ve got it down, it’s an incredibly effective way to exercise.
Try and complete as many rope turns as possible in 3 minutes. Make sure you have plenty of space around and above you so that your rope does not cause any damage.
If you are a proficient rope jumper, run on the spot with high knees or try double unders – two rope turns per jump. If you don’t have a rope, simply run on the spot or do jumping jacks instead.
Simple, tough, and super low-tech. If there’s ever proof the old-school is best school, jump rope workouts are it. Here’s how to do it right.
Burpees are one of the best bodyweight whole-body exercises around. From your legs to your arms via your core, burpees target almost every muscle.
- Stand with your feet together, then lower into a squat position and place your hands on the floor in front of you.
- Jump your feet back into the push-up position and immediately do one push-up.
- Jump your feet forward, back to the squat position as quickly as you can.
- Jump up into the air as high as possible and land with slightly bent knees.
To make the burpee less intense, skip the push-up and/or jump. Beat the clock and see how many burpees you can do in 3 minutes.
Hated it when you were a kid, for good reason. Burpees are a killer workout. Here’s how to do burpees properly, and how to make them easier or harder.
6 Abs and Butt Workout
Prolonged sitting weakens the glutes and tightens the hip flexors. So activate those glutes and work your abs too with this mini workout.
- Lie on your back with your legs bent, feet flat on the floor and hands resting lightly on your temples.
- Contract your abdominals and raise your head and shoulders 6-inches off the floor.
- Hold for a split second and the lie back down.
- Do 10 to 15 repetitions.
Immediately go into the next exercise – glute bridges.
- Immediately cross your hands over your chest, push your feet down into the floor and lift your hips up and off the floor.
- Lower your butt back to the floor and repeat.
- Do 10 to 15 repetitions.
Continue alternating exercises for 3 minutes. You should be able to manage three or so cycles.
7 Stretch It Out
Another way of squeezing in some low-intensity movement. Three-minutes is also an ideal length of time to stretch your muscles – something you can do without leaving the comfort of your office chair if necessary.
As sitting tends to shorten your hamstrings and short hamstrings can cause lower back and knee problems, it makes sense to work on improving the flexibility of this muscle whenever you get the opportunity.
- Sit on the edge of your seat with one leg extended straight in front of you, heel on the floor, and the other leg bent, foot flat on the floor.
- Lean forward from your hips and slide your hands down your outstretched leg. Try not to round your lower back.
- Hold for 60-seconds and then slowly change legs.
As with all stretching exercises, stay within your comfort zone and back off if you feel your muscles start to shake of feel any sensation of burning.