Credit: Emma Garcia Melchor

Sedentary students: what are the health risks of going online?

By Mairi Redman

With the semester’s teaching being online, it’s important to remember to at least stand up during your day.

Before I was aware of how grateful I should be to spend two hours listening to a melody of sniffling students all crammed into one room, I would slop into my seat and slowly melt into my chair as the tutorial progressed. Opposite me, there was a student, keener than the rest of us, who did not take the first opportunity to slouch into their chair but chose to stand proudly behind theirs for the entire class. To begin with, the tutor was bemused, but after a while, we all became used to the girl who would just prefer to stand.

Yet, it seems that researchers at the University of Glasgow would have been more enthused about this girl’s lifestyle choice. Repeatedly, scientific research has found a causative link between the amount of time people spend doing little activity, and the increased chance of developing health conditions such as cardiovascular disease. As watching TV appears to be one of the biggest culprits for keeping us glued to our couches, the University of Glasgow set out to determine how much time watching TV is too much. Although it was not possible to make an exact recommendation, they determined that less than two hours of television a day would substantially reduce the health risks associated with watching TV. That still allows for five episodes of Friends, in case you have the same lock-down coping mechanism as I do.

How does this two-hour guideline relate to the other multitude of hours spent watching a screen: revising, doing assignments, and now, as university goes online, lectures and tutorials too? One of the main reasons that watching too much TV is bad for our health is because it is a sedentary activity. This means it requires so little effort from our bodies that we don’t even need to click on the next episode button anyone. As I am no longer required to leave my bed for my 9am lecture, it seems plausible that our new online education may have a similar detrimental effect on our health.

Even before online education added to our sedentary lives, there was concern about how much time students were spending inactive. Many universities began implementing standing desks and encouraged students to stand up every 20 minutes during lectures to try and counteract the hours spent sitting in libraries. However, with a pandemic on our hands, we will have to be responsible for our health this coming term. Personally, I am considering using all those textbooks I naively bought in my first year to make a laptop stand, so at least I’ll finally get some use out of them whilst I force myself to stand. Realistically, however, I’m apprehensive that by week two of tutorials my bed board will be returning as my zoom background.

So why is it so detrimental to spend so much time sitting still? The problem begins with our anatomy; as we have evolved as a species, mother nature did not anticipate that we would be chained to desks for the majority of the day. Therefore, our bodies do not work optimally in the sitting position. Overall this results in a slower metabolism, worse control of our blood sugar levels and pressure, and much more. This ultimately puts pressure on the heart.

Unfortunately, the problems do not stop there. Sedentary life also has been found to impact us genetically. An increasingly sedentary lifestyle is associated with the downregulation of a multitude of genes that produce proteins necessary for keeping our bodies healthy. One example is lipoprotein lipases, which are essential enzymes that breakdown body fat in our bloodstream. Their reduced production leaves excessive levels of fat in blood vessels which can increase the formation of plaques and cause obstructions to blood flow. As well as this, when we are sedentary, our heart rates are slow, which results in sluggish blood flow. In combination with the increased risk of blood clot formation, it is easy to see how sedentary life is damaging our hearts. Fortunately, to limit the negative impact a sedentary life has on our cardiovascular system, we don’t need to be running more marathons: we just need to stand up.

As we become more reliant on technology in everyday life, this may be easier said than done. Before I started university, my computer was solely for entertainment purposes, but as my studies became more serious, so did my relationship with my laptop. During lockdown, it became the only way I could socialise with my friends and now it is how I will finish my university degree. I am very sceptical that it will be possible to squeeze all of this into two hours of sedentary time, so, if you do see me doing a star jump every 20 minutes in our zoom tutorial, you’re more than welcome to join me.


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