Summer vacation is a time for adventure and experience. But it can also be a time full of travel.
While traveling is awesome, it can be tough to avoid sitting for extended periods of time in cars, trains, planes, and buses. This can have harmful effects on your physical and mental health.
The facts about our sitting habits
In today’s world, finding ways to get moving is becoming increasingly important. Research indicates that only one in four people between the ages of 18-64 actually meet the recommended physical activity guidelines.¹
In a recent survey², 25% of those surveyed claimed to spend more than eight hours sitting daily. 44% said they did no moderate or vigorous physical activity. And 11% said they fall into both of the above categories, otherwise known as the “worst-case scenario.”
Because of society's trends, inactivity has often been referred to as “the new smoking” because of its detrimental effects on both short-term and long-term health. So, what are some of those negative effects?
Negative effects of prolonged sitting
Long periods of sitting affect nearly every part of the body.
In the lower body, the hip flexor muscles shorten while also tightening the hamstrings. In the upper body, the chest muscles shorten, while the rotator cuff and back muscles weaken, causing the shoulders to round forward.
Overly tight hip flexors and hamstrings affect gait and balance, affecting how the body is able to move.
When these muscles shorten, other large muscles, such as the glutes, are forced to relax. Now the body has to find ways to compensate for what it has lost. The first and most common compensation is overuse of the lower back, which has many negative effects.
Compensating with the lower back can lead to back pain, neck pain, shoulder tightness, lack of spine flexibility, weakened core stabilizers, knee pain, and overall poor posture. Once the posture suffers, things only get worse.
When sitting with poor posture, you put significant stress on spinal structures and other joints, such as the shoulders and hips. When this effect occurs, maintaining a proper posture and body position can become even more difficult.
This often leads to persistent postural misalignment and is among the main reasons why the “C” shaped hunched body position has become so common today.
The longer those muscles are relaxed, the weaker they become. And as the glutes become weaker, they require more effort to re-activate, also known as deconditioning, or a rapid decrease in muscle strength, mass, and oxidative capacity.
After a long period of sitting down, the body has trouble properly identifying which muscles need to activate. For example, one side may be weaker, or a deficiency could be present. The body again is forced to compensate, which is when injuries occur.
Sitting also reduces blood flow throughout the body. The feet and calves can become achy, swollen, or even numb. Even more importantly, the body is unable to achieve optimal blood flow to the brain, which can lead to brain fog and fatigue.
Finally, sitting limits the productivity of the digestive system. Rather than breaking down sugars and fats properly, the body will be forced to store those as fat. Not only will you fail to receive the benefits of these nutrients, but it can also lead to weight gain.
All of these effects only get worse over time.
In extreme cases, over the long term, prolonged sitting has contributed to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and stress. Sitting eight or more hours per day can also increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and an overall shorter life span.
So how do you avoid this, especially when traveling during summer vacation?
How to avoid and overcome prolonged sitting
60 to 75 minutes per day of moderately intense physical activity should counter the effects of prolonged sitting.
The easiest way to achieve this is to fit in a couple of exercise sessions throughout the day. But when you don’t have the time for a workout or frequently spend your days traveling, there are a few simple tips and tricks to ensure you move enough.
And even if you are exercising, it is good to practice these techniques as often as possible throughout days that require a lot of sitting.
General tips to get moving:
- Leave the car at home. Walk, run, or cycle whenever possible.
- Instead of waiting for public transportation, walk to your destination. It can often take the same amount of time.
- Use the stairs in your hotel rather than the elevator.
- Make phone calls on headphones while walking outside.
- Schedule time to walk with your family. After dinner is a great opportunity.
- If you work while traveling, try standing at a high counter or desk and take breaks often.
Tips for the plane, bus, train, or car:
- Set a timer every 30-60 minutes as a reminder to get up and move around. This can mean pulling over for a quick stretch, walking up and down the plane aisle, or standing up when the seat belt sign is off.
- Make an effort to move even while seated. Stretch your neck, move your legs, or whatever you can manage without annoying your neighbor too much…
- Get dropped off one stop early and walk the rest of the way.
- Park further away and walk to whatever awesome vacation activity you have planned.
- Take your groceries in or unpack the car on multiple trips rather than all at once. Take a few items and return for another trip to multiply your steps and muscle activation.
- If you love reading, read while standing. If you don't, stand anyway while you watch a movie or play a game.
- Wear comfortable clothes or compression socks to allow body movement and increase blood flow.
- Stay hydrated. Not only will this help limit some of the above effects, but you will need to pull over more often to use the restroom.
- When forced to sit, focus on proper posture while shifting position from time to time and breathing deep into the diaphragm to avoid or limit the adverse effects.
Prolonged sitting is usually unavoidable, whether during work, travel, or school. But using the techniques listed above can be an excellent way to avoid or limit the negative physical and mental consequences that come with it.
Being aware is key. If you can consistently notice when sitting for an extended period and take action to stand and get moving, you are well on your way.