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Don't just sit there: Sedentary lifestyle can cause range of health issues

Published: Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 11:42 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, March 1, 2014 12:06 a.m. CDT
(Kyle Grillot – kgrillot@shawmedia.com)
A recent study showed the average office worker spends 9.3 hours a day sitting compared to 7.7 hours sleeping. The Harvard Business Review recently called sitting “the new smoking.” As many as 63 percent of all office workers will suffer from neck pain alone this year, with women particularly at risk.

Dr. David Davidson wants to know his patients’ professions.

It’s one of the questions he’s always asking, and one of the most telling. How much does a patient’s job force them to sit for hours on end? Or, when dealing with the unemployed, how sedentary is this person in his or her day-to-day life?

“It gives us a sense of their overall cardiovascular health,” said Davidson, a cardiologist with Centegra Physician Care.

In a society increasingly overtaken by computer and desk-based jobs, something seemingly harmless is causing a laundry list of conditions. It’s not smoking. Not drinking. Not drugs.

Sitting. Just sitting.

The modern human sits and sits and sits. The average office worker sits 9.3 hours a day, according to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. They sleep only 7.7 hours a day, the study found.

It’s troubling, area physicians of various backgrounds say, for several reasons.

For Davidson’s patients, the inactivity shows itself in heart complications, often brought on by obesity. Conditions like heart disease and diabetes can find roots in a sedentary lifestyle.

Dr. Gregory Brebach, an orthopedic surgeon at Lake Cook Orthopedics in Barrington, said deconditioning of the back and neck can lead to other injuries.

“Your muscles learn to support your body in a way that your body wasn’t meant to evolve into,” said Brebach, who specializes in disorders of the spine.

Bad posture and a lack of exercise can put a strain on the spine. And when those who’ve become inactive need to accomplish something physical, they risk injury, Brebach added.

“When you go out shoveling, you’re much more likely to pull a muscle,” he said.

At his McHenry-based physical therapy center, Jason Gorska sees all kinds of injuries that result from spending day after day in a chair, at a computer.

Gorska’s patients are a mixed bag: from pains in the extremities like carpal tunnel syndrome and wrist and hand tendinitis, to back, neck and shoulder aches.

“When you start doing a lot of working outside of the neutral position, that’s when you end up with problems,” said Gorska, of Accelerated Rehabilitation Centers.

Gorska recommends getting up from the desk and walking around at least once an hour. He also says stretching at your desk throughout the day can help. He recommends “reversal of posture” exercises to his patients.

Davidson suggests the desk-ridden find ways to make themselves active – even if they seem small. Things like always taking the stairs rather than the elevator or parking a good distance from the building can add up, he said. There’s also more drastic measures like a treadmill desk, workplace willing.

“Is there an adverse effect to sitting? Of course,” Davidson said. “But people that are exercising outside of that sitting are in better shape than those that don’t.”

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