The last 3 years have seen many changes in the world of work, with many of us moving to a home office, but the way we work – that is, sitting – has not been affected. In other words, if we sat at work, we sit at home – but probably in a chair not designed for work, and without the gaze of colleagues, we are more likely to be slouched than in the office.
In the European Union, nearly 40 per cent of workers are sedentary, in Hungary about a third. This may be one reason why the health of sedentary workers is becoming more and more important.
General effects of sedentary work
The general perception of sedentary work is that it is easy and simple to do, comfortable and without any risk to the worker. Unfortunately, this is not the case at all: the human body is not designed to sit for hours without movement, at least 10 hours a day – let’s not forget the hours spent sitting in a car, in traffic or at home.
Continuous sitting without proper compensation can cause problems in the human body at least as bad as most of the lighter physical work.
This type of work is extremely damaging to the spine and the musculoskeletal system, but it can also have a permanent negative effect on the internal organs, increasing the risk of obesity, stroke and cardiovascular disease, in addition to skeletal disorders. Prolonged sitting puts a lot of strain on the spine, discs, muscles and ligaments – even with ideal posture. The circulation of tissues is not optimal in the areas where we sit and their metabolism is also affected, contributing to calcification, wear and tear or disc herniation. Since I am not a specialist in movement, I will also discuss the internal problems that are also caused by sedentary work.
Internal medicine effects of sedentary work
For example, people who lead a sedentary lifestyle can have a 30% increased risk of metabolic syndrome. This insidious disease of civilisation affects almost all our organs, and once they show signs, it’s no job to put them right.
The most common symptoms are high blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and their complications, which can be anything from cardiovascular problems to thyroid problems and diabetes. Another problem with metabolic syndrome is that it creates organ-level inflammation. If it persists for a long time, it is very stressful for the human body.
As far as nutrition is concerned
Sedentary work also causes problems with the digestive tract, because in order for the intestines to do their job properly, sufficient exercise is needed, along with adequate fluid and fibre intake. A lack of any of these causes various digestive problems and deterioration in the functioning of the intestines, leading to constipation, various intestinal problems, haemorrhoids, and so on. Exercise triggers a number of beneficial processes: circulation is stimulated, metabolism is more lubricated, enzymes and hormones are produced more easily. When we move, blood sugar levels are lower and digestion is faster. By sitting in one place for hours on end, we make it harder for ourselves.
As a consequence of a sedentary lifestyle, obesity is not just an aesthetic problem. Weight gain can be a precursor to a wide range of diseases, from insulin resistance to diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Excess weight can also worsen any musculoskeletal problems you may already have. Research shows that every year of sedentary work causes 2-3 kg of weight gain, even if we don’t change our eating habits. So let’s get ahead of this and make a conscious effort to improve our diets ourselves.
This has to be done on a very personalised basis, taking into account everyone’s individual condition, but some rules of thumb can be applied:
– Swap your carbohydrates for healthier ones – choose pseudo grains such as buckwheat, millet, quinoa, teff, sorghum and countless others. With a small swap like this, we’ve consumed up to 30% fewer calories than usual – without the feeling of fasting.
– Many of us keep snacks on us and eat them unconsciously while we work. The main problem here is not the nutrient intake itself, but the constant eating, which upsets blood sugar, causes hormones and stomach acid to be constantly produced, piling up on the previous, undigested food – causing dysbiosis, bloating, poor digestion and weight gain.
– Do not eat continuously, but set aside a 10-15 minute break to eat your snacks with some exercise and walking.
Metabolic disorders: diabetes, IR
Research has shown that as little as five days of bed rest, or the equivalent of almost no exercise, is enough to cause increased insulin resistance in susceptible individuals. In light of this, it is understandable that those who have a sedentary lifestyle are 112 ! percent more likely to develop diabetes than those who exercise regularly. This is clearly the case for type 2 diabetes, which is more lifestyle-related.
But what is also true for all types of diabetes and insulin resistance is that exercise makes muscle cells more sensitive to insulin uptake, so the same amount of hormone is better used. A 2016 study found that for people with type 2 diabetes, a ten-minute walk after meals makes more difference to blood glucose control than a half-hour walk at any time of the day.
Get 5 minutes of exercise every hour if possible, but what can make a huge difference in these conditions is exercise after eating.
Don’t think it’s impractical: even if you eat lunch sitting at your desk or in the company kitchen, include 10 minutes of walking afterwards. No matter how small the space, walking just 3 steps back and forth will make a huge difference. But avoid stooping and leaning forward, as this is not good for stomach acid.
Low intensity walking after eating helps digestion. Exercise stimulates the peristalsis of the stomach and intestinal tract, thereby helping food to pass more quickly. Physical activity reduces the risk of constipation and is also very important if you have a digestive disorder such as reflux or irritable bowel syndrome.
People with blood sugar metabolism disorders need to pay close attention to their diet anyway, preferably on the basis of a plan drawn up with an expert. However, for sedentary workers, the proportion of slow-absorbing fibre should be even higher, and preferably include vasoprotective components such as red and black berries, citrus fruits and green leafy vegetables every day. All meals should contain good quality proteins and digestive spices.
Always carry your own sugar-free sweetener. If we run out at work, we tend to flip it and opt for regular sugar- 1-2 a day with coffee can make a big difference.
The role of plenty of fibre
Sitting in the same position for hours on end without moving almost guarantees that nutrient elimination doesn’t work optimally. However, there are some jobs where movement is not an option- in these cases, fibre intake and digestive aids are needed. It’s best to bake bread and pastries yourself, as you can tailor the type, quality and amount of fibre to your own needs. With lower carbohydrate, higher protein flours, you can easily make healthier baked goods than the ones you can buy in the shops.
Don’t forget that with plenty of fibre, you also need to drink adequate amounts of fluids, clean water, otherwise it will be counterproductive for digestion – meaning things will not only get easier, but harder.
Sedentary work and a sedentary lifestyle are strongly associated with a higher risk of certain cancers. Several studies have shown that long-term sedentary work can increase the risk of developing lung, uterine and colon cancers, among others. Processed foods with too many additives also contribute to this. It is often blamed on lack of time, but clever planning and preparation in advance can avoid, for example, the daily cooking chore. If you can make two types of rich soup at the weekend, which is really not a lot of work, and freeze them in separate portions, you can take them with you in a canteen or tumbler.
If you do make a soup like this, don’t leave out the broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. They are high in fibre and minerals, low in calories and, most importantly, high in sulforaphane. This amazingly beneficial compound stops the spread of cancer cells, has antibacterial properties and is good for bone damage in rheumatism.
Drink it, but when?
The average adult’s daily fluid intake is 2 litres of pure water, but this is only the minimum. In closed offices and homes, the body needs water just as much as it does in the sun. Our brain function is also much worse if we are not sufficiently hydrated: even a 10% water deficit can lead to drowsiness, fatigue and concentration problems. Often, when we have a craving for a snack, thirst is the signal. If we do not drink, but eat something sweet or salty, we become much more tired after the energy and blood sugar surge of the momentary carbohydrate intake, and without fluids.
During sitting, especially when heated or air conditioned, the joints become dry and painful, and the possibility of wear and tear and dislocation is increased by friction when standing up suddenly. Anyone with a similar complaint should drink an extra 2 dl of water every hour. It’s best to have water to hand, preferably in a form that allows you to track your daily consumption. Drink smoothies and smoothies that suit your body.
But there is one very important rule: don’t drink for at least 30 minutes before and after a meal.
Liquid dilutes stomach acid, which cannot work properly and can lead to poor digestion and reflux.
Joints and cartilage
In several places in this article I mention the bad effects of sitting on the musculoskeletal complex. This can be helped by anti-inflammatories and foods containing calcium and iron. Anti-inflammatory in this respect are turmeric, cloves, omega 3 fatty acids, red and black berries. Calcium and iron are found in high doses, readily available and digestible by the body in poppy seeds, black and golden sesame seeds, tahini. All green leafy also contain both factors. In addition to the lecithin and healthy acids found in oilseeds, along with omega-3, they almost lubricate the joints and are also a healthy source of fibre. However, watch out for calorie content, each to their own personal preference.
Vitamins and supplements
The brain is our most energy-demanding organ, so it’s no wonder that people with mental work need a wide range of vitamins and minerals. The misconception that the brain runs on sugar is slowly disappearing from the public consciousness, much to my delight. Our brains need omega-3 and many, many minerals to function properly: magnesium, zinc, lecithin, manganese, choline. These are most easily obtained from fruits, oilseeds, whole grains. Among the spices, cloves, ginger and cinnamon are beneficial for our brain function.
For those who smoke cigarettes, pay close attention to adequate vitamin C replenishment: each cigarette excretes 100-120 mg of vitamin C from the body – this should be counted separately in your daily vitamin intake.
If you don’t want to spend a lot of time looking at different nutrients and ingredients, the following 3 tips can help you ‘take care of’ many things at once:
– Make a smoothie with your favourite fruit and throw in oil seeds, spices, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, green leafy vegetables, and even if you consume supplemental protein preparations. It can be eaten in the morning or in several portions a day.
– On the weekends, cook up 1-2 types of rich soups, cream soups, containing as many vegetables, pulses and grains as you like. You can season it to your liking: with casserole, herbs, Italian minestrone, oriental spicy or Indian curries – whatever you like. You can also buy the vegetables in a mix- just put them in to cook and you’re done. Freeze in daily portions.
– Make a healthy snack in the form of balls: the base is dates and oil seeds, which can be flavoured and sweetened to taste. You can also sneak in a lot of things: if you eat it on the day, any fresh fruit will do.