Recovering from a Silent Killer: Your Desk Job

By Jarod Carter, PT, DPT, MTC & Ben Shook PT, DPT, COMT, CIDN – July 1, 2017

If you’re like most people who sit all day at work but get in some form of daily exercise, you probably think that exercise is making up for the lack of activity throughout your day. Unfortunately, studies have now proven that this just isn’t the case. Not even an hour of vigorous exercise in the morning and evening can undo the damaging, life-shortening effects of sitting for over six hours per day in a supportive chair. No, “life shortening” is not a misprint or exaggeration—excessive sitting has literally been shown to shave years off of lifespan, independently of factors like exercise and other health habits.

The bad news about prolonged sitting doesn’t stop there. The above-mentioned research addresses the effects of sitting on lifespan and various disease rates, but doesn’t look at the incredibly negative impact it can have on our spine and its surrounding tissues. A large percentage of our patients with back and neck pain would not have developed these issues if they weren’t sitting and working at a computer every day. 

The solution begins here. We’ll explain why excessive sitting can negatively affect your health, and provide a list of simple things you can do to avoid these problems and undo the ‘wear and tear’ of a desk job. Getting a standing desk is a good start but isn’t even come close to the entire solution, and won’t necessarily be the best option for everyone reading this.

So let’s start with a quick look at the physiology of sitting and the take-home points of the research on this topic.

When you sit in a supportive chair, the electrical activity in your muscles drops which leads to a cascade of harmful effects. Your calorie-burning rate drops to about one per minute. Insulin effectiveness drops and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and becoming obese increases significantly. The enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides (fats) plunge, which in turn causes the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol to fall. High volumes of sitting time have also been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. American Cancer Society researchers tracked the activity levels and death rates in more than 123,000 healthy men and women. They found women who spend over six hours a day sitting during leisure time were 40 percent more likely to die sooner than women who spend less than three hours sitting. For men, the increased risk of death was 20 percent. In short, those who sit less are likely to live a longer life than those who don't. 

Remember, the studies show that these negative effects and higher mortality rates occur independently of exercise levels and other factors like diet. In other words, you cannot undo the aforementioned effects of prolonged sitting even with large amounts of exercise. 

So it’s quite clear that excessive sitting can shave years off your life, but what about the pain and lack of mobility it can lead to while you’re still around? Back pain has reached epidemic proportions in this country and is now the third most common reason people visit their physician!

Eight or more hours of sitting puts a lot of compression on the structures of the spine. It also allows the hip flexors and hamstrings to become tight which can often contribute to low back pain. At the other end of the spine, it is highly common for people to sit with poor posture that can painfully compress the cervical spine, discs, and nerves.

Luckily, there are some very simple, quick, and cheap ways you can increase your ongoing muscular activity while at work and home, and minimize the harmful effects of sitting.

Set a repeating reminder to get up

It’s easy to get caught up in work and forget to stand up regularly, so set a repeating reminder on your phone or computer to get out of your chair and briefly move every 30 minutes. Literally just 10 seconds of movement 1–2 times per hour can have a huge impact on your health. When you stand up, try the back arches and hip extension stretches shown in Fig 1 and 2.

Fig. 1 & Fig. 2

Use an exercise-ball chair

This demands a constant low-level activation of your core and leg muscles, which will effectively prevent many of the negative effects described above. Tip: Get one with a base for the ball to sit inside (see fig. 3), otherwise it will roll forward and promote a slouched low back posture. 

Fig. 3

Consider a stand-up desk  

This is a growing trend that we are very happy to see. A couple things to consider: 
1. If you’re going to stand… stand, don’t lean. Leaning against the desk will usually put you in a non-ideal posture that can lead to various strains and pain over time. 

2. We’re actually not fans of standing all day long because that can cause its own problems, especially if dealing with any joint or vascular issues in the legs. So having a variable stand-up desk that can easily be elevated or lowered is our favorite solution. Spend part of the day standing and part of the day on an exercise-ball chair.


Go for a walk at lunchtime 

Taking a walk after meals is a healthy habit in and of itself, but also serves to combat the sitting you’ll do at work; and you’ll likely be more effective when you return to your desk.


Suggest “standing meetings” at work 

If a meeting is likely to be relatively short, suggest the meeting be conducted with everyone standing (or walking). It will tend to keep them more focused and shorter as well! 


Bike/treadmill when watching TV

Sitting at work isn’t the only problem. Sitting on a comfy couch for hours every night is just as bad as sitting anywhere else. If possible, have an exercise bike or treadmill in the room where you watch TV. If the TV is on, watch it while moving.


If you’re squinting to see your monitor, you’re holding bad posture

Make sure the text on your computer monitor is large enough (and your glasses/contact prescription is up to date) so that you don’t have to lean forward or extend your head forward to easily read it.


Use a foam roller to reverse the effects of sitting with poor posture

Roll out the mid and upper back, followed by gentle back arches over the foam roll. Then lie on it lengthwise to open up the chest and stretch the shoulders back together. (See fig. 4 and 5)

Fig 4.

Fig. 5

Use a self-massage tool to relieve neck tension

Even with great posture and an ergonomically ideal workspace, neck tension is a common problem to develop overtime. Common self-massage tools that look like a cane can be very effective at minimizing this issue. (See fig. 6)

Fig. 6

It will take less than 10 minutes per day to implement most of the above, and it will make you healthier, more mobile, less painful, and potentially add years to your life. Again, see the full video at for even more detail and guidance on reversing the harmful effects of excessive sitting.



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