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By Vukosi Maluleke

Digital Journalist

‘Sitting is the new smoking’: How your nine to five could kill you

'Desk-bound individuals are at high risk for spinal injuries and chronic disease', says medical doctor.

Your full-time gig may pay the bills, but cementing yourself behind the desk could cost you more than just bouncing debit orders.

Desk-bound individuals who spend a bulk of their time seated are at high risk for spinal injuries and chronic disease.

So, while working well under pressure and crunching deadlines might earn you some brownie points with the boss, your love of labour could land you in hospital.

Here’s how your nine to five can send you to an early grave.

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Short-term pay, long-term pain

General Practitioner at Netcare Medicross, Dr Bonke Sambulu said while ‘sitting is the new smoking’ it may not be an accurate comparison, the dangers of continually sitting for prolonged periods were a real concern.

Sambulu said individuals who spend most of their weekdays seated must prioritise posture and regular body breaks – or risk compromising their physical well-being.

“The effects of sitting at your desk all day may not be immediately apparent, but over time, ongoing sedentary behaviour impacts various vital functions of the human body, which requires movement to maintain health,” she said.

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Mind your back

Sambulu pointed out that back and neck pain were common noticeable complaints among desk-bound workers.

While this may seem mild at first, Sambulu said this could increase risk for muscle and spine ailments in the long-run.

“Sitting for extended periods can cause certain muscles to weaken while others become tight, leading to imbalances that contribute to stiffness and discomfort, particularly if you are sitting incorrectly,” she cautioned.

The doctor recommended adjusting chair and desk height, the position of the monitor and keyboard, and the placement of your mouse for better sitting position and reducing strain.

“Repetitive strain and poor posture, on the other hand, can increase the risk of discs slipping or herniating, causing pain, numbness, or weakness in the back and neck. These symptoms can also occur with spinal stenosis or the narrowing of the spinal canal,” said Sambulu.

She further explained that spinal discs may become permanently damaged as continuous pressure accelerates “wear and tear”, resulting in Degenerative Disc Disease.

“Likewise, neck arthritis, or cervical spondylosis, involves the degeneration of the vertebrae in the neck. Both conditions lead to chronic pain and limited movement.”

Take regular breaks

Cautioning against lack of movement, Sambulu said it could result in muscle atrophy and weakness, particularly in the leg muscles, core and back.

As a result, spinal and joint support will be reduced, further increasing musculoskeletal pain, injuries and postural problems.

“Regular breaks from sitting and exercises to strengthen the muscles and the spine can help to prevent these conditions.

“Weight-bearing exercise helps maintain bone density and strength, an important preventative step against bone loss and osteoporosis later in life.”

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Hypertension and diabetes

The more time you spend sitting, the less calories you burn, which can lead to weight gain and obesity – both risk factors for hypertension and diabetes.

Sambulu said a sedentary lifestyle is linked to metabolic changes, such as insulin resistance and the imbalance of lipids such as cholesterol, which increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

“Lack of physical activity also affects blood circulation and overall cardiovascular health, further contributing to the development of these conditions and others, such as blood clots and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Poor blood circulation may also lead to varicose veins and leg swelling.”

Furthermore, she said lack of movement can impair lymphatic circulation, increasing risk of infections and inflammation.

“Remaining seated for extended periods on an ongoing basis may also contribute to digestive issues such as constipation and bloating.”

Compromised mental health

Emphasising the importance of staying active, Sambulu said physical activity was essential for mental health.

“Being active releases endorphins, our ‘feel-good’ hormones, and can boost serotonin — a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, sleep, and appetite.

“Physical activity has also been proven to reduce levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, and to promote relaxation.”

She explained that lack of physical activity can affect mood regulation, leading to feelings of lethargy, irritability, and low moods.

“Incorporating regular exercise into one’s routine can help promote emotional well-being and improve overall quality of life,” she said.

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Get up, don’t just sit

While you may not have a choice when it comes to showing up for work, you can certainly make it better.

Sambulu suggested incorporating physical activities like stretching, walking meetings, and desk exercises such as squats or leg lifts to counter the adverse effects of sitting from nine to five.

“Take the stairs over the elevators or escalators, and cultivate a healthy office environment with ample fresh air and sunlight whenever feasible.”

If your employer is not fussy with the budget, then proposing standing desks could be worth the shot.

Nonetheless, staying physically active outside your working hours is equally important.

“By prioritising good desk health, you can mitigate the adverse effects of sedentary desk work,” said Sambulu.

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