The Health Hazards of Sitting

Why a Desk is Dangerous and How to Prevent the “Sitting Disease”

Could sitting really be as dangerous as smoking? According to Kristin Biggins, OTD, OTR/L ,CHT, RYT at St. Luke’s Elks-Rehab in Ketchum, yes. When people sit for prolonged periods, the metabolic system starts to shut down and cholesterol levels drop 20%. Blood sugar levels can become compromised as insulin effectiveness drops 24%. In addition, calorie burning drops to one per minute. These significant changes can lead to obesity, diabetes and even cancer. In a recent study it was found that individuals who sit for the majority of the day are 54% more likely to die of heart attacks. In addition, it is harmful to the musculoskeletal system, resulting in low back pain, weak abdominals, tight chest muscles and tight hip flexors.

Biggins reports sitting greater than 6 hours per day is independently associated with total mortality, regardless of the amount of exercise, smoking habits or body mass. In another study it was found that women who sat for more than 6 hours per day were 37% more likely to die than those who sat fewer than 3 hours a day. Men who sat more than 6 hours a day were 18% more likely to die than those who sat fewer than 3 hours per day.

Participation in moderate daily physical activity is not enough to raise energy expenditure to the point of preventing obesity or chronic disease. In other words, if one does not decrease the amount of time that they sit, it will not matter how much they exercise nor at what level of intensity. In order to negate the consequential effects of sitting disease, one must move more!

The Health Hazards of Sitting: Why a Computer Desk Can Be Dangerous

The simple remedy for “sitting disease” is to stand more—while you compute or do any number of daily activities. Standing is like walking: It increases energy, burns extra calories, tones muscles, improves posture, increases blood flow and ramps up metabolism. Here are seven tips that are easy to implement:

  • Walk more at work: Park your car farther away from your building; use stairs not elevators; take a long route to the restroom.
  • While computing, set a timer or use this Standing App on your phone to remind you to stand up and stretch every half hour. Use this time to go get water, or do errands around the office.
  • Stand up when you talk on the phone. An added benefit is that your voice projects better because your torso is expanded!
  • At the beginning of every meeting agenda, announce that it is okay to stand throughout.
  • Have walking meetings.
  • Don’t send emails if the recipient is near, instead get up and walk over to them.
  • Move trash can, documents and printer to the other side of your office.     

Although more expensive, standing and treadmill desks can have significant benefits and negate the effects of sitting too much. Tony Benson, Quality and Performance Improvement Coordinator at St. Luke’s Wood River uses a desk attachment that allows him to sit or stand at work. “What I like best is that it doesn’t FORCE me to sit while I work. At anytime, and for as long as I want, I can raise my workspace and work while standing,” reports Benson. “When I’m on the fly, I can stop into the office and raise the workstation to check email or my calendar and not have to sit or hunch over.”

One can also get creative with their desk set up by having varied heights to place the computer monitor and keyboard on to provide options for sitting or standing. By standing, a person can burn 30-60 more calories in an hour!

Do you have sitting disease? Find out if you are at risk and learn ways to reduce time spent sitting by visiting here and taking a short quiz.

The Health Hazards of Sitting: How a Desk can be DangerousBiggins goes on to say, the treatment of “sitting disease” requires a paradigm shift in understanding the necessity of decreasing sedentary behavior time and increasing physical activity throughout the day. One must look at the total picture of their movement in relation to their work, play, leisure and resting activities.

Whether you prefer short high intensity physical activity or longer bouts of exercise, the important thing is that you move. No longer can a shortage of time be an excuse. Being a “desk-jockey” requires that one “work-out” and train for their job just as an athlete would train for their sport. In addition to activity, one must have ample hydration, a balanced diet and know how to implement techniques for stress reduction.

Beyond, taking active breaks when you are working, make sure you have proper ergonomics at your workstation to help combat injuries and the harmful effects of sitting:

  • Use a chair that is adjustable.
  • The top of monitor casing should be 2-3" above eye level and centered to user.
  • Sit at arm’s length from monitor, elbows should be at 90 degrees.
  • Feet should rest on floor or a stable footrest. The hip angle should be at approximately 130 degrees.
  • Wrists should be neutral or slightly flexed down when using the keyboard. Keyboard should be centered to user, tilted negatively and should accommodate the mouse.
  • Do not rest for long periods on wrist rests or arm rests.
  • Take frequent breaks and move the opposite way of your sitting posture: look away from desk, open chest, twist, stretch hip flexors, extend back.

Find out more about Repetitive Stress, Sitting Disease and Ergonomics at a free Brown Bag Health Talk in Ketchum on Thursday, February 27, 12:15 – 1:15 p.m. at St. Luke’s Wood River, Baldy Rooms.

Kristin Biggins, OTD, OTR/L ,CHT, RYT, has her doctorate in occupational therapy and is a certified hand therapist at St.Luke’s Elks-Rehab in Ketchum. She also teaches therapeutic yoga through St. Luke’s Wood River. Contact her at

This article of Sun Valley Magazine's Body & Soul blog is sponsored by St. Luke's Wood River Medical Clinic.

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