Along with walking 10,000 steps a day and eating more plants, another health mantra you may have heard a lot of in recent years is this: sitting is the new smoking.
Long periods of sitting down – be it hunched over a computer, commuting by car or train, or binge-watching your favourite Netflix show – is bad for our health, and, according to the NHS, many adults spend around nine hours a day doing it.
Sitting for long periods is associated with several health issues, including obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and it’s thought to slow down your metabolism by affecting the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar and break down body fat.
One study – which involved researchers analysing results from 13 previous studies – found those who sat for more than eight hours a day with little exercise had a similar risk of dying to smokers (hence the “sitting is the new smoking” headlines). While another, from the University of Leicester and the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in 2019, found that adults who sit for more than nine hours a day are doubling their risk of early death (the good news is, they also found walking briskly for 24 minutes every day helped offset some of the damage).
And then, of course, there’s the pressure that sitting puts on your spine and other joints, especially your shoulders, neck and hips – as anybody with an office job and some nagging lower back pain will attest.
But what if it’s not sitting that’s the problem, but rather how we do it? In their new book, Built to Move, Kelly and Juliet Starrett, a husband-and-wife fitness team (he’s a doctor of physical therapy; she’s a former professional athlete turned fitness author), make the case that there is one type of sitting that, when done for 15 to 30 minutes a day, can help you live longer.
“Sitting on the floor, if you do it regularly, is one of the things that can help you become more proficient at getting down on the floor and then getting back up again without using any support,” says Juliet, who claims decreased mobility is one of the main reasons behind care home admissions.
Spending time sitting on the floor with your legs crossed – much like you did at school – helps ward off decreased mobility and poor health, and is one of 10 healthy habits the pair recommend in their book.
“Sitting on the floor remedies some of the pain-inducing compensatory positions our bodies adopt after sitting for long periods in a chair, on a couch, or in your car,” adds Kelly. “Our bodies are built to sit in ground-based positions, so when you spend some time on the floor each day, you’re helping to ‘rewild’ your hip joints. Simply put, sitting on the floor in a variety of positions helps restore your hip’s range of movements and keeps your bones, joints, and tissues in their best working order. Floor sitting will not only make it easier to get up and down off the floor (because you practise it), but also potentially remedy the musculoskeletal issues associated with so much chair time.”
The sit-and-rise test is one you may have heard of – and even possibly attempted. If not, here’s a rundown: in a well-known 2014 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, researchers asked men and women aged between 51 and 80 to do the sit-and-rise test, to see if they could sit down on the floor and get back up again without any support – in other words, without using their hands or holding onto a chair.
This simple exercise, the researchers concluded, could measure people’s flexibility and strength, and indicate how long they would live.
To try the test yourself, Juliet and Kelly advise taking your shoes off, standing with one foot crossed in front of the other and, without holding onto anything (unless you feel unsteady), bend your knees and lower yourself to the floor until you’re sitting cross-legged. Now, from the same position, lean forward with your hands outstretched in front of you and rise off the floor, without using your hands for support.
If you can’t manage it, don’t worry, they say, but keep practising. “Being able to do this is a sign that you’re less likely to have a debilitating fall in later years, and you’ll remain in all-round better health,” says Kelly.
Staying down on the floor is also healthy, according to the authors, who point out that very young children do this a lot anyway: “Kids have no trouble at all sitting on the ground, in a variety of positions, for hours at a time,” says Juliet. “And it’s no accident that they are equally adept at getting back up again. It’s so basic to the nature of childhood, we don’t even notice kids doing it all the time.”
And it’s not just children: “Sitting in chairs all the time is also only embraced by one third to half of the world,” says Kelly. “People in non-Western countries do things like squatting while waiting for the bus, or sitting cross-legged while eating. This may account for why people in China, for example, have 80 to 90 per cent less occurrence of arthritic hip pain than Westerners.”
The takeaway, it seems, is this: sit less on your chair, practise the sit-and-rise test, and spend more time sitting on the floor. “We’re trying to change the narrative that sitting is bad or standing is good,” says Kelly. “Instead, just move, walk and change positions more throughout the day. We’re fans of standing desks, but if they’re not an option, avoid what we call ‘marathon bouts of sitting’, where you don’t get up or change position for long periods.
“Your ultimate goal should be sitting on the floor for 30 minutes a day; but it’s fine to work up to it gradually. Spend 10 minutes reading the paper, or drinking your tea,” he adds.
Finally, don’t constrain yourself to the cross-legged position, and sit in other ways, such as with your legs out in front of you or tucked to the side, to increase mobility.
“This will prepare your body for whatever comes its way, be it ageing, injury, or just the physical aches and pains that can come from living in this chair-bound, technology-loving, caffeine-fuelled world of ours.”
‘Built to Move: The 10 Essential Habits to Help You Move Freely and Live Fully’ by Kelly and Juliet Starrett (£18.99, Orion Spring) is out now