Sitting for long periods without moving takes its toll on the body confirming the old adage if you don't use it you lose it. Picture: AP
Most of us spend at least six hours sitting every day, and a widening rear, sore back and stiffness are not the only results of a sedentary lifestyle.

Experts warn that what you should really be worried about is the impact of sitting on your internal organs such as your heart, digestive system, including your general immune system.

According to a Cape Town chiropractic specialist, Dr Kevin Lentin, there is ample evidence that sitting for long periods is detrimental to one’s health.

When you sit for a long period you age quicker, your muscles burn less fat and your blood flows slowly, allowing fatty acids to clog your heart.

Some regard sitting as the new smoking.

“Our bodies are designed to move. Lentin says once we stop moving, many of these processes slow confirming that if you don't use it you lose it. “We start to lose function, there’s a weakening of the muscles, digestive function slows, our metabolism slows leading to increased weight and fatty tissue. Increased fat to muscle ratio is unhealthy and promotes the release of inflammatory cells, tending to eventually compromise the immune system,” he said.

According to Alaric Jacobs, the communications officer at Groote Schuur hospital sitting for extended hours is a health risk. It increases risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular, diabetes, hypertension.

A prospective study in the British Journal of Sports Medicines showed that sedentary behaviour was a predictor of weight gain in Australian women. Prolonged sitting may alter the passive stiffness of the lumbar spine and result in lower back pain and poor posture.

“The feeling of heaviness in the legs and distension, swelling of the feet which appears during prolonged sitting posture are due to an increase in the volume of the lower limbs. Deep venous thrombosis (DVT) is an example for how too much sitting, not just too little structured exercise, can induce medical problems. DVT is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition where blood clots develop in the veins deep within idle leg muscles,” says Jacobs.

He also adds that when you are sitting for extended hours, you may alter the passive stiffness of the lumbar spine. “This may have an effect on work performance, absenteeism, increased health billswhich can all impact general wellbeing such a stress, and depression.”

Dr Lentin says studies indicate that multiple organ systems are affected by an excessively sedentary lifestyle.

There is definitely a slowing of the digestive processes, leading to reduced gastric emptying and even constipation.

“There is a greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome, and even cardio-metabolic syndrome characterised by elevated blood pressure, raised triglyceride and ‘bad’ cholesterol, blood sugar imbalances and insulin resistance, resulting in an increased risk of pancreatic malfunction and diabetes.”

Long hours can also result in fewer calories being burned, rising obesity levels.

“Obesity is closely linked to raised systemic inflammation, which is linked not only to diabetes and all forms of cardiovascular and heart disease but to all of the chronic degenerative diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease,” he said.

He says there are a number of things that can be done to compensate for having to sit for long hours at work for example. If you do have to walk anywhere, take the long way round.

* Make a point of getting up at least every 30 - 40 minutes to take a 2-minute stroll around the office.

* Find a quick, very basic exercise routine that can be done right in your chair.

* Be diligent about going for a walk or doing some exercises during your lunch break or when you get home from work.

* Do adjustments on calorie intake during the day to compensate for your lack of exercise - especially reduce carbohydrates, sugary and sweet foods

Jacobs says reducing sitting time has an important role in promoting physical activity in maintaining a healthy weight and in preventing further weight gain and improving chronic disease outcomes in middle-aged adults.

Moderate-to vigorous-intensity physical activity has an established preventive role in cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. However, recent epidemiologic evidence suggests that sitting time has deleterious cardiovascular and metabolic effects that are independent of whether adults meet physical activity guidelines.

Stability balls have become increasingly popular as an alternative to office chairs to help reduce the prevalence of lower back pain. A study showed that prolonged sitting on a stability ball does not greatly alter the manner in which an individual sits, even though it appears to increase the level of discomfort.