Leading wellness experts paint a bleak picture of what happens to people who sit during most of their waking hours.
The damage starts as quickly as 20 uninterrupted minutes in a chair or on a couch.
Your metabolism slows. Your blood sugar level rises. Your liver looks to mop up the excess sugar and store it as fat – across your body.
If you spend lots of time at a computer, you hunch forward and tension builds in your neck, shoulders and parts of your back.
Such lethargy – stretched over workdays, work months, careers – can lead to brain fog, anxiety and depression, weakened core muscles, and chronic pain. It can contribute to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other serious health challenges.
"Sitting is so much more far reaching than even the adverse effects of smoking because, plain and simple, eight out of 10 people nowadays sit between 10 and 12 hours a day," Lancaster chiropractor Jeff Grazen said. "Eight out of 10 people don't smoke."
That's why Grazen – a guy who owned a flip-phone until three years ago – and two of his patients created a startup company to build a computer application designed to get users off their fannies and into short exercise routines several times a day. It caps off the routines with health tips for those who lead mostly sedentary lives – primarily at work.
In theory, the app has a large pool of potential customers. Half of American workers were employed in moderate physically active jobs in 1960, compared to 20 percent at the start of this decade, according to the health journal PLoS One.
Rates of obesity, diabetes and prediabetes have skyrocketed since.
Those involved in fitness classes or other exercise before or after work also can benefit from the app.
"Something you do at the end of the day for one hour, three evenings a week, doesn't actually offset the harm for what you do 15 hours a day, seven days a week: sit," Dr. James A. Levine told National Public Radio in 2015, a year after publication of his book, "Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It." Levine, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist and international obesity expert, invented the treadmill desk.
Grazen points to the book, and studies on extended sitting, as he urges his patients, and now app users, to get up and move. A 1989 graduate of the National College of Chiropractic in Chicago, his office protocol includes spinal manipulation and other chiropractic adjustments, then sending patients home with a set of exercises.
"I tell them, 'You're going to learn how to control this problem yourself, and you're going to rehabilitate and not become dependent on someone else to take care of you," he said.
The idea for the Well Fit Plus app bubbled up after a female patient with a busy desk job – suffering from neck, shoulder and upper back pain – wanted a better sense of the exercises Grazen recommended she do at home.
He asked her to record him on her cellphone while he showed her the proper form.
Grazen then approached two other patients – financial planner Bob Florian and medical supply company owner Joe Manzella – with the notion of creating an app to do the same for others. They agreed to invest, brought in the Applied Science and Helms tech groups to build the app, and asked Michelle Bulan, Lisa Collins and other fitness enthusiasts to help him record short exercise routines.
Florian came to Grazen with a bad back a quarter-century ago.
"He has been instrumental in steering me on the right path," including providing exercise and stretching routines, he said.
The principal owner at Florian Financial Group in Williamsville sees the app as a perfect tie-in with retirement and other advice he gives clients. "Taking good care of yourself has a direct connectivity to your financial well-being," he said.
There are thousands of fitness apps, Grazen said, but precious few that are practical on the job.
"Who's going to do Bulgarian push-ups or Yugoslavian squats at work – in high heels or their suit coat and tie?" he said.
About 200 functional fitness routines, each about 90 seconds long, now grace Well Fit Plus. Used over time, they are designed to hit important points across the body. Users can pick their favorites for troubled body regions. Some routines were shot against familiar regional backdrops that include Canalside, KeyBank Center and Buffalo Naval Park. Many have been shot in front of a green screen in a warehouse owned by Manzella, which has allowed technicians to slip a company logo into the background.
"The app reminds you to exercise, it holds you accountable, and it shows your statistics," which you can share with your health care provider, Grazen said. "Everything we do in the app is stabilization and rehab-based movement: back, neck, shoulder, sciatic, low back, hip."
Warren Clark, another chiropractic patient, was among those who helped the startup work out the kinks in recent months before introducing the application to a wider audience.
"We have a lot of folks who sit a lot, so it made sense to buy enough so that everybody in our office could have it," said Clark, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York.
There are 30 employees in the Amherst office. Five other BBBs also have been using the app since Grazen told leaders about it during a conference in Buffalo two months ago.
Clark said about one-third of those in his office – including himself – continue to use the app more than three months after they started. It complements a wellness program that includes $100 toward an annual gym membership, an informal walking group and "occasional healthy food days," he said.
"If you walk around and see somebody standing up using the app, good for them," said Clark, 68, who is in the process of scheduling a left knee replacement. As he prepares, he has started to bike and do more moving at home on weekends, and has set his app to prompt him to exercise for 90 seconds every workday hour, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"If I sit or stand too long, I'm very uncomfortable," he said. "This gets me up once an hour and I feel better. I stretch. There are some exercises I can't do, so I do something different."
The app costs $29.99 per year for corporate use; individuals can pay the same rate, or $3.99 a month. It is available at Google Play and the Apple App Store, as well as wellfitplus.com.
Grazen touts the "side effects" of regular use as more energy, better metabolism and lower blood sugar and cholesterol readings. Consistent users also have lost weight, he said.
Corporate wellness programs promote similar goals. Most programs include annual physicals, blood work and lab assessments, gym memberships or in-house fitness centers, team weight-loss challenges, nutritional education, maybe even employee fitness trackers. Much of that is reactionary, said Grazen, who's helped several companies with corporate wellness plans during the last two decades.
"The problem in industry today is that we all sit, so how does your wellness program address the elephant in the room? Now, I come in and talk about the bull's-eye, which is plain and simple: Get 'em up."
Adverse effects of sitting
Within 20 minutes of sitting, your body starts to shut down. “We call that the cascade to failed health,” said Jeff Grazen, co-owner of the Well Fit Plus app. This is what prolonged sitting and a sedentary lifestyle can do to you over time:
It can add to lack of focus, headaches, low mood, stress and anxiety, and may increase Alzheimer’s risk.
Sitting in a hunched position can curve and tighten the spinal column and lead to neurological problems, including back pain. Tension also builds in the shoulders and across the neck. Numbness can radiate in your limbs.
Increases blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Over time, this raises the risk of heart attack and stroke, and may lessen the lifespan by up to a decade.
Being sedentary causes the overproduction and growing ineffectiveness of insulin, raising the risk of Type 2 diabetes and its related health complications.
Men who sit most of the time are more likely to become obese. Your body will store up to 95 percent of carbohydrates as fat if you sit most of your waking hours.
Research suggests prolonged sitting may increase the risk of breast, colon and endometrial cancer, perhaps by excess insulin boosting cell growth or because of lower production of antioxidants, which kill cell-damaging free radicals.
These muscles – important in balance, including walking – are at rest while sitting.
These muscles are key to functional movement, including walking and balance.
Weakening hip flexor
Chronic sitters rarely extend hip muscles, which shorten and tighten them, decrease mobility and raise the risk of falling.
Extended sitting slows circulation and can cause blood to pool in the legs. Swollen ankles also can result.
What you can do
- Exercise: The surgeon general recommends 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise each week – including walking.
- Get up and move frequently: Research shows even if you exercise regularly or go for a long walk daily, you still will experience the adverse effects of prolonged sitting and being sedentary. “After as little as 20 minutes of sitting, the adverse effects start to effect our normal body function, metabolism and blood sugar handling,” Grazen said. “The key is frequent and regular activity breaks. Mix standing and sitting throughout your day. Flex your muscles. Ninety seconds of challenging movement every 20 minutes is optimal; 90 seconds every hour will suffice.”
- Eat more protein: Snacking on protein can increase metabolism; eating carbohydrates can slow it down. Snack on nuts, jerky, seeds, beans, vegetables, soy nuts, string cheese, hard boiled eggs, chicken or turkey. Forego red meats.
- Cut simple carbs: Gain an immediate impact on your health, wellness and energy levels by avoiding sweets, sugared drinks, breads, processed foods, bagged and boxed snacks.
- Breathe: Take a deep breath, pause and let it out. Relax while you do it. This naturally reduces your heart rate and reduces stress.