How Sitting Can Shave Off Years of Your Life

By Jarod Carter PT, DPT, MTC – August 17, 2020
Photos courtesy of Jarod Carter.

Two and a half years ago my wife and I welcomed our twins, Adelaide and Gray, into the world. Being a first-time parent, I took to Google to learn everything I could about twins and become the best father I could be. 

In that enlightening process, one of the many things I came across were “twin studies” and the wide variety of things that twins have allowed us to research to better determine how much of a role genetics versus environment play in many areas of our life. One of those areas, in particular, is longevity.

Twin studies have estimated that approximately 20 to 30 percent of the variation in human lifespan can be related to genetics, with the rest due to individual behaviors and environmental factors that can be modified. 

As Dr. Tim Caffrey pointed out in this month’s AFM issue article The Keys To Longevity, “… while some genetic factors appear to be fixed, others may be more malleable, with genetic risks amplified by stress levels, inflammation, and other modifiable factors.”

So even with our genetic code, our decisions and lifestyle habits can directly affect how that code is ultimately expressed to shape our life and lifespan.

Dr. Caffrey also delves into how physical activity and exercise are proven to improve longevity. Though that statement may seem self-evident, today I’d like to explain a surprisingly powerful but little-known, longevity-enhancing component of physical activity: micro-movements and mini-contractions of our muscles.

Excluding the young athletes we treat in our Austin-area physical therapy practice, the vast majority of our patients have a job or business that puts them in a chair at a desk most of each day. You probably don’t need a doctor to tell you that it’s bad to sit around all day, but some interesting research about inactivity and sitting has emerged that you should understand.

If you’re reading Austin Fit articles, you’re obviously health-conscious and you likely attempt to combat the effects of desk-job sitting by hitting the gym or doing something active at least a few days a week. That’s certainly important and no doubt has very positive effects on your life and longevity, but specific to this topic, I have bad news…

In 2011, The New York Times published a summary of the research on this topic, and I’m afraid to say that our assumptions have not been correct. Excessive supported sitting has harmful effects, even if you exercise for an hour or more every day. 

In fact, this research shows that sitting in a supportive chair for multiple hours each day can literally shave years off your life! Yes, you read that correctly. Prolonged supported sitting can shorten your life, even if you work out like a maniac before and after you sit at a desk 8 hours each workday.

I very purposely use the terms “supported” and “supportive” above because that is the key component to these life-shortening effects. It’s not sitting that’s the problem—it’s sitting in a supportive chair that allows your muscles to stop working as hard to keep you upright. 

The NYT article linked above gives a good description of the scenario: 

With supported sitting, “Electrical activity in the muscles drops, leading to a cascade of harmful metabolic effects. Your calorie-burning rate immediately plunges to about one per minute, a third of what it would be if you got up and walked. Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes rises. So does the risk of being obese. The enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides plunge, which in turn causes the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol to fall.”

Luckily, there are plenty of simple things you can do to increase your ongoing muscular activity while at work and minimize the harmful effects described in this research. It comes down to making more small movements each day than you would when simply sitting in a supportive office chair.

One easy technique is to set a quiet alarm/pop-up on your phone or computer to remind you to briefly stand every 20-30 minutes. There are free apps for the iPhone and Android phones that will help, and plenty of web browser extensions you can also use.

A more effective approach is to sit on an exercise ball rather than a chair. This demands a constant low-level activation of your core and leg muscles. I’d suggest getting a ball chair like this with a base because otherwise, the ball will consistently roll forward forcing you into a slouched posture if you’re not really working against it. 

My best recommendation is to consider getting a height-adjustable standing desk that allows you to both stand and sit at different parts of the day. The “Vari-desk” is a nice option you can place on top of your existing desk, and this Ikea option is what I personally use in my home office. Depending on a number of factors, standing constantly all day is not something I’d recommend to all my patients, so for the general public I really like the recommendation to do a bit of both throughout the day.

So there you have it: an incredibly simple way to change your workstation to avoid shaving years off your life. 

Click here to watch a handful of workstation tweaks and a short, simple mobility routine to undo the damage that deskwork commonly causes our bodies.

Jarod Carter PT, DPT, MTC is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and the founder of Carter Physiotherapy, where active people in Austin go to quickly recover from injury so they can keep playing their sport, exercising, and enjoying life. Offering specialized hands-on manual therapy as well as online telehealth treatment options, all sessions are one-on-one with a Doctor of Physical Therapy and designed to get you maximal results as quickly as possible. Jarod is also the author of two books and has helped thousands of healthcare providers around the world to create private practices offering the highest level of treatment and care. Jarod provides monthly resources and discounts specifically for Austin Fit Magazine readers here: 



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