I’m a Professor Who Encourages Students to Take Dance Breaks—This Is What Happens When You Sit Too Much

Photo: Getty Images / Maskot
As much as it hurts to acknowledge it, we know sitting is bad for us. Sitting too long can cause inflammation that makes our muscles sore and throws our body way out of alignment. Researchers at UCLA are taking a stand (get it?), and taking a deeper look into why we sit for so long, the impact it has, and how to get us moving again. What happens to your body when you sit all day?

"As we've evolved as a society with all these advancements, we really engineered the the need to move out of our daily lives," says Burt Cowgill, PhD, an adjunct assistant public health professor at UCLA. "It's ironic now that we find ourselves actively trying to reengineer movement back into sort of our lives."

Dr. Cowgill and his colleagues conducted a qualitative study with professors and students and found that a majority of students felt they didn't get enough time to move around during class, and more than half thought it was socially unacceptable to get around and move, but they reported that they'd get up and move more if their instructor encouraged it.

Dr. Cowgill explains that there are both short-term and long-term impacts of sitting too long. You may feel some aches and muscle fatigue from sitting at your desk all day long in positions that aren't ergonomically optimized. He says people can feel the effects of prolonged sitting while they're at work, but also at night when they go home. As you engage in more prolonged sitting over periods of time, he says your metabolism can slow down, too. "Some of the more long-term population studies are starting to show that people that report longer bouts of prolonged sedentary behavior are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and even all-cause early mortality," says Dr. Cowgill.

Short of buying standing desks and making all meetings walking meetings, how can keep ourselves from sitting too long? Dr. Cowgill says current guidelines suggest getting up and moving for a minute or two every thirty minutes or for five minutes every hour. "We've instituted something here that staff can participate in called Move Mail, so you get a reminder in your email to get up the stretch," he says. "They sometimes have these little one-minute videos and things that you can watch there to help you as well."

People who sit a lot don't have time to clear their heads, says Dr. Cowgill. "I teach a two-hour class and I give a 10-minute break, and I encourage students in that particular class to get up, go walk around the hall, get a drink of a water," he says. "Many of them want to put their heads down into their devices or just close their eyes because they're tired and they're under pressure from other things in their day." He says we think when we have a moment to ourselves, it's better for us rest, versus to get up, move around, and reenergize.

One way to keep us moving is "instant recess," a term coined by Toni Yancey, MD, MPH, one of Dr. Cowgill's late mentors. "The idea was, whether in work, school, in other settings, you can engage in a 5-to-10 minute physical activity break to kind of get your body going again, to clear your mind," he says. Instant recess can look like anything from African dance to basic aerobics. "When I do those in my classes, the students when they finish, they'll laugh, they'll smile—there's some funny moves that they're doing. And when we sit down, and I just see a refreshed, look on their faces, I know they're ready to dive in to the next round of material."

Of course, not every work place is going to be cool with people getting up for dance breaks. Changing the way we think about movement and how important it is to our health, is the next step to getting people more active. "To really achieve some of our goals we're going to have to overcome some norms," says Dr. Cowgill. "It's okay if we need to stand off to the side, it's not a sign that we're disinterested or that we're disrespecting what somebody has to say but that we're actually caring for ourselves."

Need an excuse to get up and move? Try this dance cardio routine:

Here's a comprehensive stretching guide for people who sit all day. And here's three ways to sneak in a workout at your desk.

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