Not long ago, I was alarmed by a comment made in passing by a personal trainer towards the end of my session. In a discussion on posture, he casually noted that humans have started dying younger for the first time in 100 years, and it’s all down to the increasing amount of time we spend sitting. Caught off guard at the time, I was determined to return to the subject – so a few days later I put in a call to the man who sounded the alarm for me.
Amir Siddiqui, the 32-year-old co-founder and head trainer at Dubai’s Symmetry Gym, a man with encyclopaedic knowledge of the human body and a determination to educate his clients, is more than happy to talk. But first things first: why pick on sitting? ‘We’re looking at sitting because it’s the most prevalent pattern that we engage in every day,’ he explains. And he’s right – it knocks the socks off most of the other unhealthy things we do to our bodies, such as filling our faces with artery-clogging food and rotting our insides with smoking. The vast majority of us sit, constantly.
Until recently, Siddiqui had relied on a study carried out several years ago in the US by a Yale professor, but earlier this year, a new study on the other side of the world grabbed his attention and confirmed his suspicions – but also brought some good news. ‘The old study’s research showed that sitting kills, and activity doesn’t reverse this, but a new 2012 study from Australia of more than 200,000 Australians aged over 45 shows that activity can actually decrease the risk.’
According to Siddiqui, the study followed those who spent an average of 11 hours each day sitting. ‘The people who were inactive had a 40 per cent chance of dying within the next three years, and that’s huge. But by adding in exercise, you reduce that risk by a little over 38 per cent,’ he explains. Though he doesn’t have the data for how that translates for those aged 25 to 35, he anticipates the correlation goes up in the same way as diabetes, or a heart attack: ‘The risk just gets higher and higher as you get older.’
Though there have been no studies of this nature done in Dubai or the UAE, he anticipates that we’re just as at risk here – if not more so. ‘It’s logical. People are more inactive here, mainly because there’s less walking.’
So why is sitting so bad for you? First, it damages spinal health, distorting the posture permanently through a process called collagenisation, which fuses tissue together (or, as Siddiqui likes to call it, ‘neurocementing’). Sitting also puts pressure on the spine that it’s not designed to deal with, and it can also lead to depression. ‘You have a higher chance of falling into a depressed state if you sit for long hours, because you adopt a foetal position,’ he explains. ‘You know that feeling where you want to curl up because you got fired? Sitting feeds into that state.’
Some employers have started introducing stand-up desks as a way to make an office environment less damaging to their employees’ health and improve productivity. MTV, Nike, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble and Harvard University in the US have all starting installing these new workstations, as well as some pioneering companies in the Netherlands, and some manufacturers have seen their sales increase by more than 40 per cent in the last year. Yet most of us will be confined to sitting for the foreseeable future. Even then, Siddiqui notes, standing for hours causes problems of its own (varicose veins, pressure on the lumbar disks, swollen ankles).
So what can we do? ‘The next evolution of office space will allow people to move more freely. Until then, get up and move around every 15 to 20 minutes – and 20 minutes is the limit, because by then problems have already started to accumulate. Get up and reach for the ceiling. Do the cobra yoga position: don’t hold it, just do 15 to 20 short repetitions. That should realign you for the next 20 minutes – and you’ll probably feel much better for it.’
There are your options: short disruptions to your day, or the potential for one big, irreversible interruption of your life. We know what we’ll be doing…
Amir Siddiqui is the co-founder and head trainer at Symmetry Gym, Gold & Diamond Park, Sheikh Zayed Road, www.symmetrygymdubai.com (04 346 6479).