You Are Doing This Every Day, and It’s Slowly Killing You

I had never thought much about it, but it’s something I’ve always done.  I can think of lots of good things I’ve accomplished in my life, but I’ve done many of them while simultaneously doing this one bad thing.  The impact is so minor on a day to day basis that it’s nearly impossible to notice, but slowly, every day, I have been doing serious long term damage to myself, and I’m not talking about smoking or eating crappy food.

I first made the connection a few years ago when I had left my corporate job of 10 years, and I was at home trying to start a solo consulting business.  Going from corporate to self employed in my 30s was a bit scary since I was used to a steady salary, benefits, and a familiar daily work routine.  I learned quickly that if I was going to have any chance at success, I needed some structure in the form of a new daily routine.  The anchor of that routine became a daily trip to the gym.

In the gym I got back to where I had always been comfortable, lifting weights.  I’d done this on and off since my late teens, and over the years whenever my fitness veered off course weight lifting had always brought me back on track.  I put together a workout plan and I was back doing olympic lifts like squats, bench press and deadlifts.  It felt good.  The working out gave me the little bit of structure I needed to get through the unstructured days I was trying to figure out.  Sometimes I had to drag myself to the gym, but I always left feeling good, until bad things started to happen.

I had been approaching my workouts like I always had through my teens, 20s and early 30s.  I’ll admit I was a little light on warmups and stretching, but I was very familiar with proper form, and never pushed myself too hard if I wasn’t feeling good.  What started to happen was little, niggling injuries.  A shoulder thing here, a back thing there, a neck thing – little pulls and strains just started to pop up.  I really needed those workouts to break up the day, to think, and to keep up my energy and morale.  They gym was as much about my physical health as my mental health, and constant injuries meant I was neglecting both.

I found myself regularly visiting my chiropractor, an incredibly capable doctor who practices a wide range of physical therapies and treatments.  After a few rounds of treatment for several gym related strains and pulls, I had become really frustrated with these recurring issues and started to ask him why this was happening.  He asked me a bit about how I spent my days, and in about 14 seconds of diagnosis found the culprit: sitting for long periods of time.  He explained to me that body tissues will start to make adaptations after only 20 minutes of being put in a certain position.  Sitting for long periods every day for the last 15 years meant my body had made lots of bad adaptations over time.  I had developed tightness in some muscles and weakness in others that kept joints from working the way they were supposed to.  These adaptations, plus the revival of my weightlifting regime was just a recipe for problems.

Of course I wanted to know was if there was anything I could do about it, since at the very least I wanted to prevent things from getting worse, and I didn’t want to stop working out.  He said that it was simple; just break up the sitting.  What he meant was, if I was going to be sitting fo a long period of time, that for every 20 minutes of uninterrupted sitting, I should be standing 1 minute.  That was it.  In that one minute I could walk around, do some stretches for the muscles that were getting tight, and really try to activate all those relatively weak muscles in my neck, back and lower body, but just standing for a single minute was enough to negate the adaptation that would have happened if I had otherwise kept sitting.

I went home and immediately started using the timer on my phone to make sure I wasn’t sitting too long without breaking it up.  I eventually switched to using an interval timer that would alternate between 20 minutes and 1 minute so I didn’t have to worry about resetting it (there’s a link to the timer at the end of this post).  I’ll be honest, I was used to sitting for long periods of time and changing this habit was really annoying at first.  The timer going off was disruptive, but eventually I got used to it and it became a reminder of my desire to stay as mobile and physically capable for as long as possible.  I started adding some good habits to that one minute break – I incorporated some light stretching and also used that time to top up my glass of water (hydration is another thing that I’ve been trying to stay on top of, here’s how to check your hydration).  It also had a side benefit of reminding me to stay on task.  If I wandered away from what I was trying to accomplish, sucked into some social media black hole, the timer going off was a nice kick in the pants to reset and refocus on the work at hand.

I’m sharing this story because I wish someone had told me this earlier.  I’ve been using this breaking up sitting strategy for a while now, and it’s been the catalyst to all sorts of positive changes and a focus on my long term physical wellbeing.  It’s also given me a mindset and physical confidence to get back into a few activities that I haven’t done in years, including Skateboarding Again After 20 Years Off.

The title of this article might seem a bit dramatic, but as humans we are built to move.  Neglecting your physical mobility (and detrimental habits like long term sitting) absolutely has drastic negative effects on your long term quality of life.  If you are sitting regularly without breaks, and value your long term mobility, I hope reading this will change how you think about uninterrupted sitting.  If you’re already a physical mobility champ, and know how good it feels to take care of your body, please forward this along and share the knowledge.

Here’s the same free interval timer that I started using to remind me to break up my sitting: Mike’s Sit Timer.  This one works in a browser but you can also download a version that works your phone.

If you want to learn more, here are a few good articles worth checking out:

The health hazards of sitting – The Washington Post

How Inactivity Changes the Brain – The New York Times

Now stand up and move!