Sitting at Your Desk Is Eating Your Muscles

Even if you exercise before or after work, sitting all day may be catabolizing your muscles. Science took a look and gave recommendations on how often you need to move to prevent this.

Do you work an office job and sit all day? We have heard increasingly in the past years that this is just plain bad for the human body, but how bad is it, and what should we do about it?

Sitting Is Turning You Into A…Sitter

First, one major detriment to long periods of sitting is the effect on your posture, flexibility, mobility, and joint health. Probably the biggest single problem from sitting all day that I see as a coach is back pain and signs of deteriorating spine health. This is brought on by gravity, of course, but also a progressive tightening of the hip muscles from the lack of movement while hinged at the hips for long periods. When you exercise after sitting all day, the hips need to move, but their natural mobility is limited by muscle tightness. That movement needs to come somewhere, so it comes from the spine and the result is pain.

Get Out of That Chair, Even if You Skip the Gym

There has also been a lot of scientific discussion of these types of health risks, posed by being sedentary for long periods. Right now you might be thinking, “Well this doesn’t apply to me, I get plenty of exercise after work and I keep myself fit.” But is that enough? A recent study in Diabetologia indicates that exercising after work isn’t enough to prevent disease. Long periods of sitting were associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and death – even for those who got exercise at other times of the day.

The key to eliminating these health effects is regularly and consistently moving while on the job. Some companies may have exercise breaks, but it might not be enough. In a review published this month by the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, breaking up periods of sitting every half hour was recommended. This can prevent the catabolism (the breaking down of tissue) known to occur during sedentary periods. ­Not only that, researchers recommend talking about the topic with your coworkers, getting others involved, and even branding the concept to improve awareness of how important regular activity is to health during periods of sitting.

stretching, office stretches, desk stretches, mobility, hip flexor stretchSo what do we do to break up the lack of activity? The review mentions that standing alone creates enough of a stimulus to prevent catabolism. They recommend five minutes of standing for every thirty minutes of sitting. My own recommendations are to stretch while you do this. It make look silly, but get over it. It’s important, and your health is worth a comment or two. People might even join in when you mention you are working to prevent back pain and death. I don’t want back pain or death, coworker, do you? Then you best be stretching your hip flexors.

Speaking of which, I think a good hip flexor stretch is about the best stretch you can do if you are going to do only one while you work. And many office chairs are great for this. Stand in front of your chair, as if you were about to sit. Turn ninety-degree to the right. Put your right knee on the seat of your chair while standing on the left leg. Put the top of your right foot up on the arm of the chair and make sure your posture is good and tall. You should feel a stretch in the front of your right hip. Switch legs when you’re done.

Looking Silly Is Better Than Being Dead

If you can’t stand and stretch like this, or you are too concerned about what others around you think, then at least do an isometric squat while you sit, or go do a couple sets of squats in the bathroom. For the isometric squat, push your heels into the floor like you are standing up but with a force just shy of actually standing. This isn’t as good as the other options, but it might be enough to prevent your muscles from deteriorating.


1. E. G. Wilmot, et. al., “Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis,” Diabetologia, 2012, 55:11

2. Geert M Rutten, et. al., “Interrupting long periods of sitting: good STUFF,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2013, 10:1

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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