Sitting is the new smoking. And here's what to do about it.
We know the perils of smoking, one of the biggest causes of death and illness in the UK, however little is published about the seemingly innocuous activity of sitting on a chair? Former NASA scientist, Dr. Joan Vernikos, has compared sitting in a chair for prolonged periods to being weightless in space. It has a devastating effect on our muscles, bones, joints. Sitting in a chair causes the abdominals to lose their tone and strength, results in a lack of mobility in the hips and shortens our hip flexors. This means we are prone to continual lower back pain especially the lumbar spinal discs and all kinds of postural issues (55% of working people in the UK experience back pain IES 2020). It also impacts on blood pressure, blood sugar and ability to burn fat. In turn this affects our metabolic rate which has been shown to be important in recovery from COVID 19 as well predicting overall health and life expectancy (Dr Aseem Malhotra 2020).
Despite many areas of advancement in society, our health and well-being is not one of them. We spend more today on pharmaceutical medicine than ever before and yet average life expectancy is now in decline and let’s not even get into the misery caused by the current mental health crisis and subsequent decrease in the quality of life. The science is stacking up, our daily habits and lifestyle are causing chronic health problems. Lets be clear, sitting is a completely natural human thing. Dr David Raichlen, a professor of biological sciences studied the Hazda tribe in Tanzania and concluded: “Even though there were long periods of inactivity, one of the key differences we noticed is that the Hadza are often resting in postures that require their muscles to maintain light levels of activity – either in a squat or kneeling.”
I’m not convinced that in the West we are able or willing to change our sitting habits overnight but we can take breaks and more importantly learn to re-activate amnesic muscles by taking a yoga class or two.
Yoga is the scientific study of the human condition. Based on 10,000 years of continual refinement, it focuses on healthy functional movement of the body. There have been many attempts to Westernise yoga but in my experience it’s like replacing butter with margarine - it may spread better but just doesn’t hit the spot.
Experiencing a well designed yoga sequence is like bringing your body home to a warm welcome. And although it may be challenging at times it’s as if our human genes are made for it.
One of the most basic, iconic yoga postures is the yogi squat and perhaps for several reasons an antidote to sitting for long periods in a chair. Whereas sitting in a chair turns off many critical muscles a yogi squat activates them, lengthens and builds strength - whilst sitting. A yogi squat has throughout time been the way in which us humans relax, work, cook, give birth, socialise and use the bathroom. Being able to sit in a full resting position, heals down, long quads and spine is the epitome of great functional posture and mobility. Have you noticed how toddlers are champion squatters and then somewhere along the line we are conditioned into a pattern of sitting that is alien to our bodies. As a yoga teacher I have observed that this movement is not merely the domain of dancers, martial artists or obsessive fitness gurus, nor it is limited with age (our body can adapt at any age and we should remain as active as possible as we age. Dr Daniel Lieberman 2020). I believe that squatting and other yoga postures are in fact part of our DNA and the natural human functioning of the body.
Yoga itself is predominantly about spinal movement and based on the premise that a healthy spine promotes a healthy nervous system, a prerequisite for a happy, healthy human. And perhaps in the short-term a yoga class or two a week may also be the answer to the potential looming crisis in health care.