Why is sitting for too long bad for your health? Experts explain.

Do I need to worry about sitting for too long?
Do I need to worry about sitting for too long? (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

From 9 to 5 workdays spent in front of the computer to binging on a new TV series, most of us spend a lot of time sitting, often in a single day. Young adults in the U.S. reportedly sit about nine to 10 hours a day, compared to older adults, who sit up to 13 hours a day. And a lot of us know that sitting for long periods of time can be harmful.

But how much sitting is too much? How does prolonged sitting affect your health? And how can you get yourself moving more often? Here’s what experts say.

What’s happening

New research is shedding light on just how harmful sitting can be compared to other activities. According to a European Heart Journal study published in November 2023, even sleeping is better for your cardiovascular health than sitting.

Previous research has shown that sitting for too long may shorten your lifespan. A 2017 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, linked being sedentary with a higher risk of early death.

Do I need to worry?

How much you sit every day can affect your health and how you feel. According to Dr. Bradley Serwer, a cardiologist and chief medical officer at VitalSolution, sitting for more than eight hours has been associated with several issues, including cardiovascular problems, blood clots and musculoskeletal problems such as lower back pain.

“Prolonged sitting has been coined the ‘new smoking’ because of all of the negative consequences it has on your health,” he tells Yahoo Life.

But how can something as simple and seemingly innocent as sitting contribute to an outcome that sounds so serious? It all comes down to a lack of movement and how that reduces blood flow, Serwer says. “Regular movement helps maintain overall health and prevents these issues.”

Megan Daley, a physical therapist specializing in trauma and somatic therapy, tells Yahoo Life that prolonged sitting in particular puts extra pressure on your spine, especially if you lean forward or slouch. She says that sitting can also shorten your hip flexors — a group of muscles at the front of your hip that allow you to lift your leg and knee up towards your torso — that can cause lower back pain.

But Daley explains that it’s not just sitting that’s problematic. “In general, it is more that any prolonged static posture can create some pain or irritation.”

That said, she believes sitting isn’t inherently harmful. “While it — like every posture, position or activity — has effects on your body, there’s no black and white to bad versus good here,” Daley says. It’s worth noting that other studies, including one involving 10,000 adults in Denmark, haven’t found a link between prolonged sitting and a higher risk of heart disease.

What can I do about it?

Moving more often is good for your body and your health. But how often should you take a break from sitting? “There is no researched cutoff,” Daley says, “but in general, I recommend around every one to two hours to get up and move around for a bit or change positions.”

However, other experts recommend getting up more often when possible. For example, the Mayo Clinic recommends taking a break from sitting every 30 minutes. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be for long. According to the 2023 study mentioned above, just five minutes of moderate (such as walking or lunges) to vigorous (such as jumping jacks or climbing stairs) activity benefits your heart health.

But with busy schedules, what can keep you motivated and consistent? And how can you remember to get up more frequently? Here’s what experts suggest.

Buy a smartwatch or standing desk

For starters, technological advancements in the fitness space can help. “Smart watches, which track movement, steps, flights of stairs, heart rate, heart rate variability, etc., have been a valuable tool,” Serwer says. They can also remind you to get up every hour.

Another option Serwer suggests is a standing desk, which may be especially helpful for those who sit all day while they work. Getting movement during that work period — not just after or before — benefits your mind and mood, too. “Exercise throughout the workday can help decrease professional burnout, can improve mood and help with mental clarity,” Serwer says.

Start small

Daley says even small adjustments every 30 to 60 minutes can make a difference. “This could be from sitting to standing, or this could be how you are sitting, like normal upright chair posture to criss-cross legs.”

She also suggests taking a lap around the office (or your home) every time you switch tasks. “This is actually a really good habit from a mindset and somatic [meaning, affecting the body] standpoint, too,” she adds.

One study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that replacing just 30 minutes of sedentary time, such as sitting, with any kind of physical activity, whether it’s light intensity or moderate to vigorous, on a daily basis can help you live longer.

Add strength training

While aerobic exercise is important, strengthening your muscles is too. Lifting weights is a key way to do this. “Often if you sit for long periods of time, you may feel tension in your upper back, traps [back muscles], neck or maybe even get a slight headache,” Daley says. “This again goes back to blood flow and muscle strength, and often if you do some overhead lifting and activate those muscles through load, that pain and stiffness will dissipate.”

Strength exercises help not only in the current moment, but also in the future. “This will help ensure you have a decent baseline of muscle strength and endurance to feel better sitting,” she says.

The main takeaway

Sitting for excessive periods of time can be harmful to your health, so experts recommend being intentional about incorporating some movement every 30 minutes to every hour or so without stressing yourself out about it.

“We aren’t meant to be static beings,” Daley says. “Your best posture is your next one — keep moving.”