Is your workstation working against you?

Continuous desk-bound work can result in neck and back pain as well as more serious long-term ailments. Freepik

Continuous desk-bound work can result in neck and back pain as well as more serious long-term ailments. Freepik

Published May 22, 2024


Dr Bonke Sumbulu

DESK-bound individuals who spend most of their workdays seated, need to prioritise good posture and regular body breaks - or risk spinal injury, chronic disease and mental health issues, among numerous other serious concerns.

While sitting at your desk all week long may help you achieve your self-actualisation goals or pay your bills, it may also be setting you up for future health problems.

Continuous sitting has been termed “the new smoking” – and although this may not be an accurate comparison, the dangers of continued sitting for long periods are cause for very real concern.

Health negatives

Over time, ongoing sedentary behaviour impacts various vital functions of the human body - which actually requires movement in order to remain healthy.

Back and neck pain are among the more noticeable complaints of desk-bound work. While these may initially seem minor, they can result in muscle and spine ailments in the long-term. 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. Adjusting chair height, desk height, the position of the monitor and keyboard, and the placement of the mouse are all essential for supporting neutral body postures and reducing strain.

A lack of movement can result in muscle atrophy and weakness, particularly in the muscles of the legs, core and back. This reduces spinal and joint support, further increasing the risk of musculoskeletal pain, injuries and postural problems.

Prolonged sitting reduces calorie burning, which can lead to weight gain and obesity - both risk factors for hypertension as well as diabetes.

A sedentary lifestyle is linked to metabolic changes such as insulin resistance and the imbalance of lipids such as cholesterol, which can further 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.

Physical activity

Taking regular breaks from sitting and doing exercises to strengthen the muscles and spine can help prevent these conditions. Weight-bearing exercise helps maintain bone density and strength - an important preventative step against bone loss and osteoporosis later in life.

Physical activity is crucial for regulating metabolism and managing blood sugar levels. Reduced metabolic rate can, over time, increase the risk of obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

A lack of movement can also impair lymphatic circulation, increasing the 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.

Physical activity is equally important for good 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 adrenalin, and to promote relaxation.

Overall, a lack of physical activity can disrupt the delicate balance of factors that influence mood regulation - leading to feelings of lethargy, irritability and low mood. Incorporating regular exercise into one's routine can help promote emotional well-being and improve overall quality of life. Team sports have the added benefit of social connection, which has been shown to have a positive impact on mood.

Be proactive

To counteract the adverse effects of sitting all day, incorporate activities such as stretching, walking meetings, standing desks and desk exercises such as squats or leg lifts. Regular physical activity outside work hours is also crucial for overall health.

By prioritising good desk health, you can mitigate the adverse effects of sedentary desk work. A good place to start is to utilise a suitable chair, maintain proper posture, incorporate regular walks and stretches, take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, and cultivate a healthy office environment with ample fresh air and sunlight whenever feasible.

Sumbulu is a general practitioner at Netcare Medicross