Sitting is [Not] the New Smoking – But a Sedentary Lifestyle May Kill You
Most of us sit… a lot.
Think about it – from the moment you wake up to when your head hits the pillow, how many of those hours are spent in some form of sitting?
And given what the media has been saying about the health risks of sitting, this can be pretty concerning. If all the time you spend on your butt puts you at risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, it starts to seem like a wildly irresponsible lifestyle choice. Why not just bust out the cigarettes and eat an all-eclair diet? Or else go and buy an expensive standing desk?
Neither approach is going to help much – and here’s why.
How Sitting Became the New Smoking – In the Media, at Least
The media has been going wild on this particular breed of story in the last 15 years. It became trendy to write op-ed pieces about “sitting is the new smoking” sometime between 2011-2013.
A recent media analysis found it’s still going strong, with 300 articles that linked sitting and smoking. These articles often equate sitting with smoking, implying that they have the same level of health risk.
You do have to wonder how many of these articles were paid for by standing desk companies.
The thing is, though, we just don’t have the scientific evidence to support these kinds of claims. Yes, there are health risks associated with sitting for long periods. The amount of hype around these stories, though, can be misleading for the public. Firstly, they can trivialise the risks of smoking – one of the major health crises of the 20th century. But also, distorting the facts and blowing them out of proportion is makes it difficult for people to make the right decisions for themselves.
You should be able to make informed decisions about your health and lifestyle – not be fooled into believing things that aren’t true! So what’s the truth?
Weighing the Evidence: What are the Real Risks?
Sitting for extended periods is harmful, but are the risks really comparable to smoking, or is it being blown out of proportion?
Here’s what the science says.
- Analysed 13 studies.
- People who sit all day and don’t exercise much (or at all), are at roughly the same risk of death as smoking and obesity as people who smoke.
- Followed 5000 people over 13 years.
- Found no correlation between sitting and chronic illness (eg diabetes)
- Analysed dozens of studies.
- Found that sitting and smoking have very different levels of risk – not comparable at all.
One study took a different approach and tried the cause of the health risks. “Is is sitting itself?” they asked, “or other complicating factors like socio-economic status?”. They found that:
- Sitting at work had a weaker link to long-term health risks. Higher status and paid jobs tend to involve sitting; and higher socio-economic status is linked with less risk of chronic disease.
- Watching TV was strongly linked to long-term health risks. Watching lots of TV is also linked with having a lower socio-economic status, unhealthy eating, unemployment, and poorer mental health.
Many complicating factors here make it very difficult to tell whether it’s sitting itself that’s risky, or the lifestyle of the person doing the sitting. We don’t learn much about the risks of sitting at all.
Should We All Get Standing Desks? Nope.
Say you get a fancy new hydraulic sit-standing desk. The bad news is that standing for 45 minutes each day doesn’t give you any health benefits. After all, you’re not sitting, but neither are you burning much energy – you’re just standing still.
And recent studies have shown that standing for two hours a day can be pretty bad for you – as anybody who works in retail surely knows. Your lower limbs start to swell, you get really uncomfortable, and your cognitive function drops dramatically – leading to lower productivity. If you stand for a long time, the blood pooling in your legs and the pressure in your veins can increase your risk of heart disease.
So, standing is bad for you, and so is sitting. What gives?
The point here is that staying in the same position for too long is bad for you, whether that’s sitting, standing, or downward dog. Two nasty things happen:
Shallow breathing leads to lots of different negatives, such as less oxygen in the blood. More common in sitting rather than standing, as we tend to sink down into our chairs.
Muscle atrophy & reduced flexibility
Your glutes, and other major muscle groups become weak, forcing other muscles to compensate. Over time, that means uneven posture and back pain.
The Real Problem: Physical Inactivity
Finally, time for the good news. In the studies, sitting didn’t carry the same risks for people who exercised frequently or had active lifestyles.
The real culprit is physical inactivity. Sitting won’t kill you – a sedentary lifestyle will. And more of us aren’t getting enough movement in our days, putting us at risk of long-term health conditions.
Contributes to over
preventable deaths per year, worldwide
(6% of all preventable deaths)
4th leading cause of death due to non-communicable diseases
Build movement into every day
All physical activity – even if it’s just walking more often – has a good effect on your health. There’s almost nothing else you can do that will make a bigger difference to your physical and mental wellbeing – especially as you get older.
But what about people with very inactive jobs, such as working in an office?
If you’re at a desk for most of the day, find ways to add activity into your daily routine. You won’t even feel like you’re exercising that much. A sit-stand desk can be a start, but it won’t be enough.
Here are our top tips for making your lifestyle an active, healthy one that will make you feel more alive.
Benefits: Increased mental focus, lower risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, plus a mood boost. If you drive, park 15 mins walk away from your work. That’s 30 mins a day, easy. If you take public transport, get off a couple of stops early and walk for 15 minutes each way. Even better, bicycle to work!
Find your workout routine
Benefits: Amazing changes to your mood, focus and motivation, reduced risk of chronic diseases. Plus a body you can be proud of!
Swap out fried foods
Benefits: Avoid many of the same diseases associated with sitting, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Eat real food – stuff that comes without a wrapper – and feel way better. If it’s fat you’re craving, try eggs or avocado. If it’s sugar, try some fruit or a date and nut slice.
Get up and move every 30 mins.
Any pretext will do – get water, coffee, snacks, or just do a lap around the office every hour.
Sitting may not be the new smoking, but a lack of physical activity leads to increased risk of early death and several chronic diseases. So instead of running out to buy a standing desk, try building movement into your day in a few small, easy ways.
You’ll notice a big difference in your energy and mood after just a few days. And over the long term, it can literally be the difference between life and death.
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