I’m a pretty healthy person, but there’s a terrible habit that I do every single day. I’m actually doing it right now. And I bet you are, too. The thing is, we all know that sitting is slowly killing us. Our butt-in-the-seat lifestyle—as in desk job, commuting, Game of Thrones marathons—is raising our risk for obesity (one study found that for every two hours a day that women spent sitting and watching TV, they had a 23 percent higher risk) and cancer (a 2014 meta-analysis suggested that every two hours of sitting increases your risk for certain cancers by 8 to 10 percent), as well as diabetes, heart disease and early death (for every two hours of daily sitting while watching TV, your risk for those three increases by 20, 15 and 13 percent, respectively).
“The human body hasn’t changed over the last several hundred years, but the way we live has,” says James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D., the author of Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It. “We’ve gone from an agricultural lifestyle, in which we spent only a few hours each day sitting, to one in which the average American worker sits for 12 to 15 hours a day.” If life-threatening diseases aren’t enough to freak you out, there are more immediate effects: lower energy, muscle atrophy, reduced mobility in our joints and a saggy rear end, says Jill Miller, the creator of Yoga Tune Up, a fitness program that improves posture and relieves pain. But there’s a twofold problem here: First, we’re creatures of habit, and the vast majority of us really aren’t interested in standing all day. (Hello, I’m in a chair, even as I write about why that’s so bad.) Second, standing up all the time isn’t amazing, either: As anyone who’s ever waited tables can tell you, being on your feet for eight hours can be exhausting, painful and even bad for your health. “Standing puts greater strain on the circulatory system and on the legs, feet and back,” says Alan Hedge, Ph.D., the director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Laboratory at Cornell University.
If sitting too much is bad and standing too much is also bad, what’s the answer? The experts are trying to figure that out. “It’s clear that we shouldn’t be sitting for extended periods, but when it comes to official recommendations, we’re not there yet,” says Peter Katzmarzyk, Ph.D., the associate executive director for population and public health sciences at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. “It takes decades of research to establish guidelines like the ones that exist for physical activity.” Until then, FITNESS has put together a plan for you backed by the early science. And get this: The strategies are surprisingly easy to follow. Trust me—I tried them.
Sit Less, Stand More
It’s all about finding the right balance. If you’re an on-the-move type, that may mean being on your feet for most of the day and sprinkling in a few sitting breaks to take pressure off your back. “I stand while leading my classes, but standing is also my preferred mode of working; I stood 70 or 80 percent of the time while writing my book,” says Miller, the author of The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body.
On the other hand, if you’re a typical desk jockey or can’t stay focused while on your feet, the right schedule might look more like this: Sit when you need to and take a 10-minute standing break once an hour. To ease neck and back strain, it’s important for several of your breaks from sitting to also be breaks from typing. Step away from the computer to make a call or do some gentle exercises.
Make it work: It’s totally OK to set a timer until you get into the habit. Luckily, I have a built-in reminder: I drink a ton of water. I’ve started using my at-least-hourly bathroom trips (TMI?) as reminders to spend a few extra minutes standing. When I get back to my desk, I stay on my feet while I check my to-do list, organize papers, open mail or (OK, fine) check social media. And those stretches? They feel amazing—who cares if I look weird at my desk? In fact, the most common reaction I get from coworkers is “Ah, man, I need to do that, too!”
Sit and Stand Properly
Posture is key: Hunching forward causes pain; compresses your lungs, thus reducing their capacity and depleting you of energy; and puts extra stress on your neck and back. “Every inch your head hangs forward translates to an extra 10 pounds of weight on your spine,” Miller says.
Movement is also crucial. Translation: Fidget! Try to shift sitting positions every 15 minutes or so (put one foot up on your chair, cross one ankle over the other knee, contract and release your glutes). If you’re standing, shift your weight from one foot to the other or lift one leg up on your desk in standing pigeon pose.
Make it work: I’m a pretty antsy person, so I shift around a lot in my chair anyway. After catching myself hunching toward my computer screen one too many times, I grab two of Miller’s Yoga Tune Up balls ($12, yogatuneup.com) and nestle them right behind my upper back (a tennis ball would work, too). I get a nice, gentle massage, and I have to stay upright to avoid letting them slip out of place—automatic good posture.
Choose Something You’ll Actually Do
Gadgets and gear can motivate you to move, but some of us just won’t rack up treadmill miles in the middle of a cubicle farm, Katzmarzyk says. “People get standing and walking desks, use them a lot at first and then taper off until they’re mostly sitting again,” he explains. This also means that if you are into walking or pedaling, you should ease in—add a bit of movement to your day at a time—so you don’t burn out.
Make it work: Confession: I’ve had access to a bicycle desk and a treadmill desk—both free—for months now, and I’ve never so much as attempted either one. The thing is, I hate Spinning, and I hate treadmills. So what works for me? Standing as often as it makes sense for the task at hand, taking lots of walking breaks and stretching and moving several times throughout the day.
Move, Especially After You Eat
Typically, when a person eats breakfast, lunch or dinner and then sits in a desk chair or on the sofa for the next hour or two, she experiences “mountainous” spikes in blood sugar, Dr. Levine says. But if, instead, she gets up and walks around—even for just 15 minutes—she cuts those blood glucose increases in half. “That’s important, because those ‘mountains’ are the number-one physiological predictor of type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Levine explains.
Make it work: I don’t exactly know why, but the mental image of ginormous blood sugar spikes, and the fact that a simple, quick stroll (which feels nice after a meal anyway) can cut down on them so dramatically, really got me on my feet. It’s built in after breakfast, because I walk around then to prepare for the day; so after lunch I have to remind myself to meander. After dinner, I walk in place while I do the dishes instead of letting them sit in the sink until morning. My kitchen is tidier, and my abs are tighter.
Fight Back With Exercise
While there have been conflicting study results as to whether a workout can counteract all the negative health effects of sitting, it doesn’t seem likely. “The reason is simple: If I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner and then go to the gym, those blood glucose mountains have already happened,” Dr. Levine explains. “It’s too late.” Plus, single-action cardio—in which you’re on a machine for a long time—keeps you in one position instead of activating new muscles and improving mobility and stability, Miller adds.
That said, exercise, especially the right kind, is incredibly good for you. Functional weight-bearing moves (think squats, kettlebell swings and dead lifts) are the best things desk jockeys can do. Don’t spend your whole session sitting on a bench or an exercise ball, says Adam Bornstein, a trainer in Denver and the founder of Born Fitness. “Standing works your core no matter what you’re doing and automatically engages your whole body,” he says. When it comes to cardio, trade your tried-and-true treadmill for a circuit of squat jumps, burpees and jumping jacks, or swap your beloved recumbent bike for treadmill intervals. And don’t forget yoga. It improves body awareness, so the poses you strike on the mat will pay off in your desk chair.
Make it work: I recently started CrossFit; the result is that functional movements like squats and dead lifts are part of my routine twice a week. I also hit a weekly yoga class, where I work on flexibility and mobility in my hips, which get stiff if I’ve been bad about sitting all day. Because I’m allergic to cardio, I use a Fitbit to motivate myself to move more—if I’m not getting close to my 10,000 steps, I’ll get off the subway a stop early and walk the rest of the way home. I’m not sitting as much as I used to, and my body looks and feels better for it.