Updated: Apr 16
Prolonged sitting has been compared to smoking for the detrimental effects it has on a person’s overall health. Sitting is a risk factor for such conditions as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disorders and even cancers. Sedentary behaviour causes 3 million deaths worldwide every year (1). Also, prolonged sitting in computer workers is known to cause aches and injuries of joints, muscles and tendons. One important aspect that is mentioned less frequently is the effects of prolonged sitting on digestive health.
The role of the gut in a nutshell
Your gut is designed to perform several vital functions such as digestion, absorption of nutrients from your food and removal of waste products. There is a huge number of good bacteria, collectively known as the microbiome reside in your gut which helps in nutrient absorption. They also prevent colonization by harmful organisms and work together with immune cells to combat germs (2). Numerous hormones that support your overall metabolism as well as enzymes that facilitate digestion are also produced by your guts (3, 4).
Moreover, our gut is frequently referred to as our second brain. Have you ever had ‘butterflies in your stomach’? In fact, we have around 500 million neurons in our gut (6) that can communicate with the brain or work independently of the brain to orchestrate gut function (8). Around 90% of serotonin, a neurochemical important in regulation of mood and feeling of happiness, is produced by the gut (7). Your gut’s microbiome is known to produce substances that also have an effect on your brain and plays a vital role in cognitive processes such as learning, memory, and emotional wellbeing (9, 10). In short, your gut health can have an effect on your mental health!
You may wonder what the gut has to do with sitting
First of all, imagine you bend your knee and sit this way for several hours. How does it feel when you try to straighten it? Exactly! It feels like the knee joint and the muscles aren’t that flexible, the circulation is poorer, and the leg might even have swollen a bit. Now guess what, our gut is also a physical structure with its own blood flow and lymphatic drainage, and even has ligaments holding it’s different compartments or attaching to other organs and body structures.
Now, sit straight and take a deep breath in. How does this feel? Next, really slouch and try to take a deep breath again. How is that different? I think you get it now. Your posture directly influences your ability to move your ribcage and expand your lungs. An excursion of an important breathing muscle called the diaphragm which sits above your guts is also affected. Normally the diaphragm moves down as you breathe in and goes back up when you breathe out. That motion creates pressure differences in your belly that helps the gut's normal function (11). Also, taking deep and slow breaths signals to your nervous system to switch to the ‘rest and digest’ mode which increases blood flow to your guts and improves digestion (14). In a slouched position the excursion of the diaphragm may be restricted (15) which may have an unfavourable effect on your gut health.
The position of the diaphragm (in pink) in your body. It is a large dome-shaped muscle that sits under your lungs and above your gut.
In addition, sitting for prolonged periods of time even if you adopted a good posture is compromising your gut’s microbiome. It has been found that gut microbiome is larger and more diverse in people doing regular vigorous exercises (5). Staying inactive for long hours was associated with reduced counts of good bacteria in your gut! Considering the gut-brain connection mentioned above (10), this may have an effect on your cognitive and emotional processes. Moreover, vigorous exercise has antioxidant properties and makes your muscles produce anti-inflammatory substances that have a protective role on the whole body including your gut (12, 13).
What are the options when sitting is inevitable
But what should you do if sitting is an inevitable part of a workday? Of course, we aren’t all going to suddenly quit our sedentary jobs. What we can do is to rethink how we are spending our work and free time. The following are few piece of advice that you could adopt:
1. Obviously, have regular exercise! Vigorous exercise a few times a week will reduce inflammation in your body and improve gut health. Also, plan your free time ahead and make sure to fill it with loads of physical activity. Spending a night watching Netflix might be tempting, but don’t forget it is still sitting and being inactive!
2. Take many small breaks during working hours! You might be tempted by ‘I’ll work for longer and then compensate with a longer break’ mindset. But in reality, the damage that occurs during prolonged sitting is difficult to reverse. So stand up every 30 mins-40 mins to stretch your neck, shoulders, spine, front of your hips and back of your knees, and don’t forget to breathe! This should take you just a couple of minutes and will instantly improve blood flow to your gut and other body parts.
3. Take every opportunity to have a walk. Maybe some of your work calls do not require video and you can take the call while walking outside? This will improve and speed up digestion and prevent symptoms such as heartburn.
4. Take a ‘fake commute’ if working from home. This will give you time to shake off the workday stress or prepare for work in the morning. Go for a walk or cycle for the amount of time you’d normally do in real life not restricted by anti-Covid measures! If you were driving before, it is time to plan new more active ways of commuting in future!
5. If you are lucky enough to have a standing desk, swap your postures, standing to sitting, frequently. Neither of these are ideal for long periods.
6. Adopt a better sitting posture. Whereas sitting isn’t great for health, sitting badly is even more detrimental. A key to a good sitting posture is a comfortable workplace setup, ideally brought to ergonomic standards. Things like position of your screen, height of your chair, appropriate lighting to name a few, can predispose or prevent you from slouching and sitting awkwardly. Also, apart from better digestive health good sitting posture will prevent your muscles and joints being affected.
Vitrue Vida will help you set up your workplace ergonomics with a DSE assessment and workplace risk assessment that goes beyond eLearning to provide tips on how to improve your team's health and wellbeing. VIDA helps employers go beyond workstation risk assessments and truly demonstrate care for their remote working teams.