Sitting is not bad for you
There was an infographic in Mashable this week, linking to a number of articles, saying that "sitting can kill you". The articles all reference a medical journal article (but none of them link directly to the data). The line common to all of these articles is:
"A recent medical journal study showed that people who sit for most of their day are 54% more likely to die of a heart attack." (the Journal is Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise)
That is an attention grabbing stat if I ever saw one! The team analyzed the lifestyles of 17,000 people over the age of 13, and found that out of those, 54% were more likely to have a heart attack. The common thread was that these people sat all day long. I assume that they all sat in chairs, although it isn't explicitly mentioned in the article. There's a growing body of evidence that suggests that sitting all day is quite bad for you. For example, the journal of Epidemiology states that sitting for 6 hour stretches makes you 18% more likely to to die from diabetes, heart disease and obesity than those sitting less than three hours a day.
Notice that none of the studies say that "sitting down will kill you", or that "sitting is bad for you". Sitting constantly is obviously not good, as the research shows. This Mashable article goes on to say that standing up all day is therefore better for you, and suggests you get a standing-desk. This is actually not a great idea.
"Scientists in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examined 17 studies on occupational sitting and cancer, and found little to no connection. And some experts in occupational health worry that hours of uninterrupted standing could be bad for your body." (Time magazine)
Standing all day is bad too. In fact, I reckon not moving all day is pretty bad for you, whatever position you're in, assuming you're a healthy individual to begin with.
I find it interesting that none of the articles or the research differentiates between sitting on the floor and sitting in chairs. In the Hatha yoga tradition, the postures that are considered the most important (see Hatha Yoga Papridika) are 4 seated postures.
Sitting & Yoga
- Asana: Every posture is called something+asana. "Asana" literally means "seat". Even standing postures like Tadasana, are considered to have a seat. It doesn't explicitly mean that you are sitting, but rather that it is a relaxed and balanced place to be.
In all the seated postures, the spine is tall, the chin is tucked in, the shoulders sink down the back, the knees are lower than the hips and it feels comfortable. If it hurts to sit like this (i.e. knee injury), don't. The most important part of any yoga posture is the breath. If you are not breathing well (as in with awareness) you are not doing yoga.
(The following links are so you can see how the posture looks, instructions would vary according to the individual)
- Sukhasana: Easy pose (crossed legs)
- Brahmasana: Half lotus
- Padmasana: Lotus
- Siddhasana: "When siddhaasana is mastered, of what use are the various other postures?" (Hatha Yoga Pradipika)
Of course, to be able to sit in any of the above postures for any amount of time, you need to have a strong and flexible body. This is why there are 84 postures (i think) described in Hatha yoga, all intended to prepare your body to take the seated postures. This can take years and years, and it usually does. There is also an array of other seated postures like Virasana, for example.
Why is sitting so important?
Seated postures allow you to comfortably focus on your breath, and also meditate. Sitting with awareness allows you to open the hips, keep the spine tall (thus giving you ample space to breathe fully) and a whole host of other things I am sure my fellow yogis will add. The thing is that every posture has a counter-posture. After sitting in one posture for a while, it's good to move and sit in a different way, that allows for your body to recover. For example, after sitting in Padmasana for a while, it might be nice to do a seated forward bend.
The real issue:
If you stay in one posture all day and don't ever move your body into other positions, you will not stay healthy. It doesn't matter if you are standing, sitting or upside down. You need to move around and mix it up. I have heard it said that "Chairs are the cancer of the west", and it is true that sitting in a chair or a comfy armchair may not be the best seated posture for you. Chairs make it hard to shift into other seated postures. In fact sitting badly is as bad as standing badly, I would argue. Additionally, sitting all day in a mental state of stress, anxiety and whatever else is also very harmful. It's not just about how you're sitting physically, but also mentally.
If you learn about yoga, you will notice that the yogis don't only pay attention to postures (asanas), but to Pranayama (breathing),and meditation but also to nourishment and cleanliness (Kriya) and a whole host of other things like not harming (Ahimsa). Sitting in Sukhasana alone is unlikely to keep you well. There is a whole system in place that makes Sukhasana work for you.
Sitting is not dangerous, and it won't kill you. Health is all about how you sit, and everything else you do in your life too.