The Health Risks of Prolonged Sitting Are Alarming

These tips help you avoid them before it’s too late.

Younes Henni, PhD
4 min readAug 24, 2021
Photo by Joel Wyncott on Unsplash.

In 1950, medical researchers noticed a mysterious trend: London double-decker bus drivers were twice as likely to suffer a deadly heart attack than ticket inspectors.

Here are two individuals working together in the same bus, under the same conditions, yet one lives longer than the other. It didn’t take long to recognise what was befalling the bus drivers: Prolonged sitting.

On average, a bus driver sat 90 % of his daily shift (~10 hours). At the same time, his ticket inspector colleague moved throughout the bus and went up and down between the decks, climbing 600 stairs per day. Because of this difference in their daily routines, ticket inspectors were healthier.

Sixty years since this discovery and more than 1700 case studies after, the scientific evidence is rock-solid: Prolonged sitting shrinks your lifespan.

We’re built to stand upright. Whether it’s your heart, bowels, lungs, liver, or even your bones, every organ in your body works best when you stand. A sedentary lifestyle, combined with a lack of physical activity, kills more than three million people a year, making it the biggest cause of preventable deaths worldwide.

When you sit, your rib cage contracts, your lungs compress, and your breathing becomes shallow. Your blood circulation is prolonged, slowing the blood supply to your brain and pooling it in your legs; even your insulin levels spike. If all of this happens for years, you’re at serious risk of strokes, heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, womb cancer, and lung cancer.

Early signs of prolonged sitting are pretty common (you’ll get them in your 20s and 30s). They are high blood pressure, stiff lower back muscles, herniated disks, an inflamed sciatica nerve causing excruciating back pain. In your 40s and 50s, your leg veins, which you’ve been compressing for years, will swell, bulge, and twist. At best, you’ll suffer a mild condition such as varicose or spider veins. At worst, you’ll contract a more serious condition such as DVT (deep vein thrombosis) or PAD (peripheral artery disease). If you manage to reach your senior years, you’re the ideal candidate for osteoporosis (weakened bones), a condition that renders you incapable of doing basic daily tasks on your own.

The damage of prolonged sitting is more than physical — sitting impacts your cognitive skills, mood, and productivity. Employees who sit for 90 minutes straight lose their focus and reach mental fatigue faster than those who switch between sitting and standing. While studies investigating a possible link to early dementia are underway, a sedentary lifestyle is the primary suspect of accelerated cognitive decline that comes with age.

If you’re spending excessive time plastered to your chair, now is the time to offset this behaviour and avoid lasting damage. Regular breaks from sitting, combined with a bit of exercise, can go a long way in shielding you from the risks of a sedentary lifestyle.

Time your work. For every 30 to 45 minutes, take a five minutes break to walk around. If you’ve got money to spare, buy a height-adjustable desk. Since I bought mine, I work standing, then sit for my breaks; a true pleasure.

Three minutes break from sitting every half an hour, combined with light-intensity walking, reduced high blood pressure in workers who sat eight hours a day. More than that, regular physical activity helps you sustain higher levels of cognitive skills to do your best work.

Every walk is an opportunity to offset the risks of prolonged sitting. Ditch the lift. Take the stairs instead. If you commute to and from work, walk to the next station instead of the nearest one. Park your car a little further.

Going somewhere in your spare time? See if walking gets you there faster than the bus. Once I realised I could walk to town in 35 minutes instead of a 45 minutes bus ride, I’ve been going on foot whenever I can. If your destination is far, get off the bus one stop early and walk the rest of the way.

If you’ve got children, watch out for prolonged sitting behaviour. The UK’s NHS (national health service) recommends:

  • Not leaving a child in a pram or buggy, car seat or high chair for more than an hour straight.
  • Reducing time spent on walking aids or baby bouncers.
  • Reducing time spent in front of the TV and other screens.

Ticket inspectors no longer exist. At least not the kind London had in the 1940s and 1950s (those who stayed in the same bus with the driver fall day long). Still, the story of these two people working side by side is proof that simple behavioural change:

  • Stand regularly.
  • Climb the stairs.
  • Walk more.

Can go a long way in helping you live longer and healthier.

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Younes Henni, PhD

Physicist • Soft Dev • ☕ Junkie • I bring you the latest in science, tech, health, economics & personal growth. To read all: