Is your workstation working against you?

Dangers of sitting for extended periods cause for real concern

Tuesday, April 16 2024

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

According to Dr Bonke Sumbulu, a general practitioner at Netcare Medicross The Berg in Bergbron Johannesburg, ‘sitting is the new smoking’ may not be an accurate comparison. However, the dangers of continued sitting for long periods are cause for very real concern.

“The effects of sitting at your desk all day may not be immediately apparent, but over time, ongoing sedentary behaviour impacts various vital functions of the human body, which requires movement to maintain health,” she says.



Musculoskeletal risks
Dr Sumbulu points out that back and neck pain are among the more noticeable complaints of desk-bound work, but this can result in a heightened risk of 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 essential for supporting neutral body postures and reducing strain.

“Repetitive strain and poor posture, on the other hand, can increase the risk of discs slipping or herniating, causing pain, numbness, or weakness in the back and neck. These symptoms can also occur with spinal stenosis or the narrowing of the spinal canal.

“Furthermore, spinal discs can become permanently damaged, with continuous pressure accelerating wear and tear and resulting in Degenerative Disc Disease. Likewise, neck arthritis, or cervical spondylosis, involves the degeneration of the vertebrae in the neck. Both conditions lead to chronic pain and limited movement.”

Dr Sumbulu notes that 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.

“Regular breaks from sitting and exercises to strengthen the muscles and the spine can help to prevent these conditions. Weight-bearing exercise helps maintain bone density and strength, an important preventative step against bone loss and osteoporosis later in life,” she says.


Chronic disease
“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,” says Dr Sumbulu.

According to Dr Sumbulu, 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 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,” she says.

Mental health
Dr Sumbulu highlights that physical activity is likewise important for 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.

Get proactive on your wellness at work
Dr Sumbulu suggests incorporating activities like stretching, walking meetings, standing desks, and desk exercises such as squats or leg lifts to counteract the adverse effects of sitting all day. She notes that 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 over the elevators or escalators, and cultivate a healthy office environment with ample fresh air and sunlight whenever feasible,” she concludes.


Notes to editor

To contact Netcare Medicross The Berg please call 011 673 4150 or 011 670 2400.

Experience seamless healthcare access with the Netcare App. Enjoy convenient healthcare anytime, anywhere, with expert medical care at your fingertips. Book appointments, consult with GPs virtually and manage pre-admissions all in one place. From emergency response services with geolocation to seamless admission, discover a new level of care. Download the Netcare App today.

Alternatively, contact Netcare Appointmed on 0860 555 565, Mondays to Fridays, 08:00 to 17:00 to make an appointment with a therapist, doctor or specialist practising at a Netcare hospital, Netcare Medicross or Netcare Akeso facility near you.

For media enquiries, contact MNA at the contact details listed below.

Issued by:  MNA on behalf of Netcare Medicross The Berg
For media enquiries contact: Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Estene Lotriet-Vorster or Clementine Forsthofer
Telephone:  (011) 469 3016
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