What sitting all day for the past year has done to our bodies

Marie Claire Dorking
·4-min read
A year of working from home has ramped up the impacts of sitting for too long. (Getty Images)
A year of working from home has ramped up the impacts of sitting for too long. (Getty Images)

We have enjoyed some unexpected perks of spending the best part of a year working from home. 

Not having to squeeze up alongside someone's sweaty armpit on the morning commute for one, and only having to travel as far as the fridge for a quick snack for another. 

But there is one aspect of WFH that may well have had less of a positive impact on our health.

Having fewer reasons to leave our desks (which for many of us have been our dining tables) has seen us glued to our chairs for increasingly long periods of time.

"Across the globe, COVID-19-related lockdowns have reduced physical activity and increased sedentary behaviour in a huge portion of the population," explains Dr Tom Micklewright, associate medical director at Push Doctor

Read more: Are you suffering from pandemic posture? Here's what to do about it

"In the UK, gyms and leisure centres closed but, also, everyday opportunities for light exercise were lost. Many people stopped commuting to work, browsing the high street and meeting up with friends and family. 

"Advised to stay at home, we have all just had very few opportunities to move about during the pandemic."

Sitting for long periods an aggravate existing problems. (Getty Images)
Sitting for long periods an aggravate existing problems. (Getty Images)

Becoming more sedentary can have a pretty big impact on your health. 

"Prolonged sitting, in particular, is believed to affect the way our bodies metabolise sugars and fats, simply because we are using fewer muscles than when we are standing," Dr Micklewright continues.  

Being inactive can also lead to poor circulation, all of which, when combined with our tendency to snack when we’re sedentary (especially during TV time), means prolonged time sitting has been associated with a range of health risks. 

"These include the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and even some forms of cancer," adds Dr Micklewright. 

Watch: Why we're spending too much time sitting in lockdown. 

Sitting all day, every day can take its toll on your muscles and bones too. 

“Lockdown has been hard for most people and the physical impacts cannot be underestimated," explains physiotherapist Sammy Margo from Mind Your Back

Margo says she has seen an increase in the number of people experiencing musculoskeletal pain. 

"Working from home, slumped over a laptop or slouched on the sofa has meant that old injuries, niggles and weaknesses are aggravated, and a host of new ones acquired," she says.  

According to Margo, humans are built to stand upright, so going for long periods sitting can have a negative impact on our muscles. 

"Being sedentary (inactive) for long periods can lead to weakening and wasting away of muscles in the legs, bottom, hips and back," she explains.  

"As these muscles become weaker, they cannot support you in the way they need to, and you are more prone to aches, pains and injury." 

Read more: How to overcome anxiety about seeing people again once lockdown lifts

Sitting all day, every day can impact our health. (Getty Images)
Sitting all day, every day can impact our health. (Getty Images)

What we can do to tackle the effects of too long spent sitting

According to Dr Micklewright, the key to combatting the effects of sitting for too long is to increase your physical activity and decrease your sedentary time. 

"Doing both is important," he says. "Research seems to show that whilst physical fitness can reduce the negative impact of spending too much time sitting, it does not eradicate it completely." 

Dr Micklewright says the risks become most pronounced when you spend more than six hours per day sitting.

"So as well as trying to exercise, look for as many opportunities throughout the day to get up on your feet," he advises. 

"Stand when you’re making phone calls. Take an evening stroll after dinner instead of watching TV. Schedule ‘standing breaks’ throughout your work day. Try to shop in-person where you can, rather than online (when non-essential shops reopen). 

"All of these things will help reduce the time you spend sitting each day and increase your physical activity."

Read more: The WFH positions messing up your back and neck - and the stretches to ease any pain

When it comes to helping ease pressure and aches caused by sitting for too long, the Mind Your Back campaign has five simple S.T.E.P.S. to help manage and prevent back pain. 

The campaign comprises Stretch, Therapy, Exercise, Posture and Strengthen and offers simple exercises and advice. 

Five S.T.E.P.S. for home working back care:

  • STRETCH – Gentle stretching, even for a few minutes a day, increases mobility and helps loosen tight muscles. 

  • THERAPY – apply hot, cold or anti-inflammatory topical therapies, such as Deep Heat, Deep Freeze and Deep Relief which help improve blood flow to injured tissues and kick-start the healing process.

  • EXERCISE – walking, cycling and swimming are all gentle, low impact, exercises that help to mobilise your muscles and joints.

  • POSTURE – check your posture, especially while doing desk work or watching TV, to ease non-specific lower back pain and enhance healing.

  • STRENGTHEN – core and back exercises strengthen back muscles and prevent localised stiffness and pain.

Watch: Chancellor urges businesses to open their offices once lockdown ends. 

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