Home Blog How Chronic, Prolonged Sitting Impacts Your Body – and What to Do About It

How Chronic, Prolonged Sitting Impacts Your Body – and What to Do About It

Written on September 9, 2014 at 7:07 am, by Eric Cressey

Last week, over the course of two days, I made the long drive from Hudson, MA to Jupiter, FL. Suffice it to say that all those hours in the car gave me a newfound appreciation (or distaste?) for just how hard sitting is on the body. As such, it was really timely when my friend Michael Mullin emailed along this guest post on the subject. Enjoy! -EC


In this article, the author describes a fictional scenario in order to demonstrate a point related to the degree of information and misinformation there is in the layman and professional literature. It is in no way an attempt to create alarm that these facts apply to every person and every situation. While this article is not scientifically based, the published references are meant as an example of what some studies have found of the impact prolonged sitting and being in a stressful environment has on the body. Please read this article with the intent with which it was written—to provide concrete tools to use if you have to sit for extended periods of time.

I would like to have you read the scenario below and let me know if you would want this job.

“Congratulations on being selected for the position of top minion here at Do Everything Against Design, Inc. (DEAD).  Our company is a prestigious purveyors of thneeds—and a thneed is a thing that everyone needs (5). We pride ourselves on our commitment to being on the cutting edge of business and we use only the best, most up-to-date information possible to dictate how we run our business.”

“Let me start off by saying that this job will provide all kinds of potential benefits. It is up to you to decide how committed you are. The potentials are endless—overuse injury, chronic pain, depression, increased alcohol use, drug or medication use, cancer, increased general mortality, even bullying—that’s right, just like when you were a kid—are all very real possibilities here at DEAD, Inc.”


“So first thing we will do is get you set up with your work area and station. Here is your cubicle which studies have shown are detrimental to not only work life but also your personal life (1). And here is your ergonomically correct chair so that your body doesn’t have to move, because research has shown that sitting 90% of your day, will almost double your risk of developing neck pain (2). We are also well aware of the fact that this increased time sitting will ultimately yield to a higher mortality rate for you (3), and make you feel generally crummy, but we are willing to take your chances. In fact, don’t even bother trying to counter all this sitting with exercise, because it will increase your risk for certain cancers by up to 66% regardless of how active you are when not sitting! (4)”

“However, placing this degree of stress and strain on your body is mainly so that we can reduce the organization’s costs and increase productivity (5), which is what is most important to us. Because ‘business is business and business must grow, regardless of crummies in tummies you know’ (6). And you do want to be a team player, don’t you?”

“In fact if you do end up having any physical problems, there is a greater than 63% chance that it is actually due to work (7). And if it isn’t from sitting too much (8), then it is due to the psychological stress that this position places on you. Heck, it might even be due to me and the stress I place on you! I will give you an 80% chance that our workplace stress will be the most important factor you will have to deal with here (9).”

forward head posture man

“We have also found that this job can also really give you a great chance on becoming an alcoholic or binge drinker (10), so you have that going for you as well.”

“If stress does become greater than you can learn how to cope with, which is apparently one important part of your employment here (11), then rest assured that we don’t really have a plan in place, because 80% of facilities do not have formal programs in place to deal with workplace stress, and of those that do, only about 14% say it is effective (12). Since that’s what the research suggests, then I mean, how important can establishing a plan be?”

“The single greatest thing about this whole situation is that I will actually pay you to let me break you down, little by little, bit by bit, until you feel beaten and broken. Don’t you see? It’s a win-win situation for both of us here at DEAD, Inc!”

I decided to title this article differently from my original title, “Your Employer Is Trying to Kill You” because I thought it might be a little less inflammatory. But, if you think about it, if data were used to truly guide what we should be doing, than many jobs where employees have to sit the better part of the day are truly a form of abuse. OSHA should be having a field day with these kinds of stats!

This is not about trying to bash many of the companies that have these incredibly sedentary work environments, though. Moreover, it's also not about the fact that I disagree with how our ergonomic evaluations and standards currently are. This is more about trying to create a "Movement/Movement."

Michael Mullin

Our bodies are designed for movement. Period. Our brains are designed for processing and trying to create efficiency so that we can process more. Now that’s pretty smart, however, highly detrimental when it comes to the importance of movement. Because if we continue to listen to what our brain is telling many of us, then it will constantly suggest that we just continue to sit to conserve energy.

So what to do for those of us who have to sit regularly during the day?

  • Get up regularly, even if it means setting a timer at your desk to walk down the hall a couple of times. Not only good for the body, but also good for the brain.
  • Stand every time the phone rings in your office, even if it means you have to sit back down to do something at your computer for the call.
  • Every hour, independent of getting up for regular walks:
    • Sit at the front edge of the chair, hands resting on thighs and body in a relaxed position—not too slouched or sitting up too straight. Take a slow breath in through your nose, feeling your ribs expand circumferentially. Then slowly, fully exhale as if you are sighing out and exhale more than you typically would, without forcing or straining. Inhale on a 3-4 count, exhale on a 6-8 count, then pause for a couple of seconds. Re-inhale and repeat for 4-5 breaths.
    • Staying in this position at the front edge of the chair, reach one arm forward, alternating between sides, allowing your trunk and torso to rotate as well. Your hips and pelvis should also shift such that your thighs are alternately sliding forward and back. Perform 10 times on each side, slowly and deliberately and while taking slow, full breaths.
  • Consider using your chair differently, depending on the task:
    • When doing work on the computer, sit with the lowest part of your low back (i.e. sacrum) against the seat back, but don’t lean your upper body back. This will give the base of your spine some support, but also allow for good trunk muscle activity as well as proper thoracic circumferential breathing.
    • When doing general work such as going through papers, moving things around your desk, filing, etc., sit forward on your chair so that you are more at the edge of the chair. This will allow your legs to take more load and your trunk muscles better able to aid in support, reaching and rotating tasks.
    • When reading items or reviewing paperwork, recline back with full back contact to give your muscles, joints and discs a rest. Make sure to hold the items up at roughly shoulder height—even if you support your arms on armrests or desk.

Remember, chairs and sitting is something that WE as humans created and the current norm is in no way optimal. We were not put on this planet to sit on chairs, and in particular not ones which shut our system off and limit our movement and ability to breathe normally. Until organizations and the general mindset changes to balance work requirements, work efficiency and human health, then we will be constantly be dealing with companies such as DEAD, Inc.

Note: the references to this article are posted as the first comment below.

About the Author

Michael J. Mullin, ATC, PTA, PRC: Michael is a rehabilitation specialist with almost 25 years of experience in the assessment and treatment of orthopaedic injuries. He has published and lectured extensively on topics related to prevention and rehabilitation of athletic injuries, biomechanics and integrating Postural Restoration Institute® (PRI) principles into rehabilitation and training. He has a strong interest in system asymmetry, movement, rehabilitation and respiratory influences on training and their effect on athletics. He has extensive experience with dancers, skiers, and professional and recreational athletes of all interests. You can find him on Twitter: @MJMATC

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13 Responses to “How Chronic, Prolonged Sitting Impacts Your Body – and What to Do About It”

  1. Eric Cressey Says:


    1. Hill E, et al. Does it matter where you work? A comparison of how three work venues (traditional office, virtual office, and home office) influence aspects of work and personal/family life. Journ Vocational Behav, 2003; 63(2):220-241.

    2. Cagnie B, et al. Individual and work related risk factors for neck pain among office workers: a cross sectional study. Eur Spine J, 2007; 16:679-686 / Smith P, et al. The relationship between chronic conditions and work-related injuries and repetitive strain injuries in Canada. J Occup Environ Med, 2012; 54(7):841-846.

    3. Katzmarzyk P, et al. Sitting time and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2009; 41(5):998-1005.

    4. Schmid D, Leitzmann M. Television viewing and time spent sedentary in relation to cancer risk: A meta-analysis. Jour National Cancer Inst, 2014; 106(7):dju098.

    5. Kearney D. Ergonomics Made Easy: A Checklist Approach. Government Institutes/Scarecrow Press, 2008.

    6. Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). The Lorax, 1971; HarperCollins.

    7. Janwantanakul P, et al. Prevalence of self-reported musuloskeletal symptoms among office workers. Occup Med, 2008; 58(6):436-438.

    8. Hamilton M, et al. Too little exercise and too much sitting: Inactivity physiology and the need for new recommendations on sedentary behavior. Current Cardiovasc Risk Reports, 2008; 2:292-298.

    9. Towers Watson Staying@Work, US Executive Summary Report; 2013/2014.

    10. Grunberg L. Work stress and self-reported alcohol use: The moderating role of escapist reasons for drinking. Jour Occup Health Psych, 1999; 4(1):29-36.

    11. Dewe P. Coping With Work Stress: A Review and Critique, 2010, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Malden, MA.

    12. Shaw Trust and British Telecom, 2006.

  2. Matt Pack Says:

    Awesome post! I’m re-posting this and emailing to my entire list. It’s that important to spread the “movement” movement!

  3. Mikey C Says:

    Thanks Eric, a very relevant post in currently almost ubiquitous sedentary circumstances. From my own experience of sciatica and a herniated disc probably caused from lack of exercise/ movement and general middle aged muscle wastage I concur with the views in your posted article. I spent many years trying to resolve on going lower back pain and was introduced to pilates which was of course very helpful but not sufficiently intense. A lot of your leg raise exercises I found to be of much assistance as a lot of the issues seem to arise from lazy gluteus and not just the usual atrophied middle age belly. As an ongoing remedy, to alleviate chronic sitting difficulties pilates did introduce me to the gym ball which I have used instead of a chair at work for many years which I find to be very helpful. Stops me from falling asleep too often and gets a few laughs too! I recommend this to other sufferers! Keep up the good work. Regards. Mike

  4. John Costello Says:

    Great article.
    I work with seniors in retirement homes from independent living to memory care. One of biggest challenges is getting the individuals who are reliant on walkers strictly from lack of strength to be able to stand and move on their own. I do a lot of strength and balance classes for fall prevention which is a big issue in this population. I tell them and see the results, that if they stick with the program we will be able to get them to be able to stand up from a chair without assistance and to be able to walk without having to completely rely on the walkers. They are in this condition because of a lot of what is in the article above. Their posterior chain is basically shut off and most of their muscle mass has atrified. If only they had done a small portion of the programs outlined above they would still be independent.

  5. Roberta Says:

    This is excellent. As an office worker who is feeling the damage of sitting in a cubical at a computer for 40 hours per week – I am an expert in this unhealthy zone. I’m committed to changing my ways. I do strength training and or running every morning prior to arriving at the death zone each day. This haas made me more and more aware of the detrimental effects this has on me. I’m 50 years old and started strength training just after my 49th birthday. I’ve reduced my size from size 12 clothes to size 2. I’m constantly asked how I did it. So I got certified as a trainer sand have begun training a couple of coworkers. It’s very exciting to have benefitted my own health so much (through the guidance of a most excellent and experienced trainer). I’m glad to begin my own career in the same field. Unfortunately, I must continue working in the death zone until my clientele is great enough to get by on financially. That is my goal.

    I loved this article. I’ll likely share it on Facebook.

  6. David Says:

    I’ve come to be aware of the effects of prolonged sitting on my knees since my recent arthroscopic surgery. I have to stand up every 30 minutes and do formal stretching every hour otherwise my knee gets really stiff and sore.

  7. Reilly Edwards Says:

    Big reason people still sit is fear of being different. It takes minimal effort/money to change to a stand-up desk…but most don’t because of OCC–oppressive corporate conformity.

    Five years ago I went stand-up, just the second guy to do it in a company of a thousand ee’s. Wide-eyed co-workers streamed by for months and stunk up the air with curious envy. Funny thing is, each of them could’ve gone stand-up, too…they just didn’t because they were afraid to make waves. Sad situation.

  8. Ren Collier Says:

    Great article! I think its important that we educate people not only how to exercise to reverse these bad habits, but also how to make behavioral changes to avoid recurrence.

  9. Misti Says:

    When I am sitting at work, I sit on a stability ball. Not the kind with a roller base, just an ordinary stability ball. What are your thoughts on this compared to a chair?

  10. forney abbott Says:

    thanks it happened to me on a trip to houston texas 1998 and is still with me no one i mean no one has a clue what is wrong or how to stop it mr mullins is right about what happens when you sit too long for sure i only wish i had read this in 1998 icn still feel the seat pressing against my hip. thanks as always an appreciate the way you go about helping people with lesser knowledge.

  11. Michael Mullin Says:

    Thanks for the comments and glad so many like the article. I truly appreciate the shares as well on websites, FB and Twitter.

    It’s important to remember that we were not put on this Earth to sit. Chairs were our invention and admittedly a step up from sitting on rocks. But many chairs are also designed for folding, stacking and/or mass production vs what is TRULY best for our complex system.

    I’ve wondered for years about why companies set-up people up in this type of workstation and then people have to ask for specifically, wait for approval, or have to have an MD note, to authorize a sit-stand workstation.

    That being said, sitting is not all bad as long as it is balanced with some degree of upright activity and general movement. When sitting, I am much more of a proponent of sitting in a chair so that the sacrum and lower lumbar region has support, but allows the thoracic region and above freedom to move and to expand circumferentially for optimal breathing.

    I also tell my patients to “pee on your boss’s time”. Have a water bottle at your desk, fill it regularly during the day which gets you up and also makes you have to hit the restroom.

    I think stability/gym balls are fine, Mikey and Misti, however I’m not sure that they should be used ALL day long. For many people, it would be difficult to sustain good control throughout the day on this type of multi-directionally unstable surface and it could make some structures vulnerable to irritation. However, mixed in with a low-back chair and standing I think is a nice option.

    Roberta, awesome! You’re an inspiration.
    David, sorry that the knees have to be the trigger, but glad it gets you up.
    Reilly, great point and agree that it is also a factor.
    Ren, it’s about creating a new engram that this should be the new norm.

    Cheers. . .

  12. Annie R Says:

    I sometimes spend a lot of time in the car, I’d love to see similar moves that can be done (safely) while behind the wheel.

  13. Patrick Mullin Says:

    Sadly, it’s not just adults! This goes for kids and long hours of video game playing as well. They spend hours sedentary and slouched over, which is a recipe for disaster. When I train kids I can always tell a video game player versus an active kid when it comes to flexibility in the legs and posture. It’s a no-brainer.

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