Five minute read

Perhaps you’ve heard the recent phrase “sitting is the new smoking.” It sounds a bit dramatic—after all, how can you compare something as innocuous as sitting to the action of drawing carcinogen-laced, carbon-filled smoke into the primary organs of the respiratory system?

But upon closer inspection, that phrase may not be as farfetched as it seems. According to researchers from storied institutions including the Mayo Clinic and UCLA among others, sitting can indeed be as hazardous as smoking for many people.
How can that be? Sitting is just, well, sitting, right?

And that’s the point. Our bodies, experts say, were not designed just to sit. But that’s exactly what most of us do—estimates indicate that in the US we spend more than half of our waking hours sitting down, either at a desk at work or at home, in our cars or while we watch TV. On average, a US adult spends nine to 10 hours each day sitting.

What effect does all this sitting have on our bodies? And why?

A widening waist can be one of most noticeable consequences. According to researchers at Active Working, an employee wellness consulting firm, long sitting sessions alter your body’s metabolism. After just 30 minutes of uninterrupted sitting, metabolism can slow as much as 90 percent. That means your body doesn’t convert what you eat and drink into energy as efficiently as it does when you’re active. Not only that, but the big muscles in your lower body—your quads, your glutes, your calves—aren’t being used. Eventually, you lose muscle mass.

There are other side-effects of sitting that aren’t as noticeable, at least at first. Among these are posture problems, including strained neck and shoulder, and lower back problems. When you sit in front of a computer, it’s common to hold your head in a slightly forward position. Some people hunch toward their screens. This can lead to strains in your cervical spine.

Likewise, when you sit, the disks in your lower back, which are meant to expand and contract as you move, are compressed and can lose flexibility over time.

Okay, so weight gain and back pain are two unpleasant side effects of too much sitting. And they can impact your overall well-being in truly negative ways. But do those two things elevate sitting to the same level as smoking? Maybe not. But these hidden dangers might:

  • Heart damageResearch published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology shows that women who sit more than 10 hours a day increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. A study by the National Institute of Health pegged the increased risk of heart disease at 64% for sedentary men and women.
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis: Sitting for prolonged periods of time can lead to poor circulation in your legs, which can cause swelling in your ankles, varicose veins, and blood clots known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). These clots are extremely dangerous. They can break off and travel to your lungs, leading to a condition known as pulmonary embolism (PE). PE is a life-threatening condition where a blockage—usually a blood clot---in the pulmonary artery that prevents blood from reaching the lungs.
  • Increased risk of disease: The Journal of the National Cancer Institute confirms that too much sitting is associated with a 24 percent increased risk of colon cancer, a 32 percent increased risk of endometrial cancer, and a 21 percent increased risk of lung cancer.

Offset the effects of sitting

These are alarming statistics. For many of us, the nature of our jobs means we do a lot of sitting. For hours at a time. So how can we counteract the consequences of all that sitting? Will exercise do it?

A 2016 Norwegian study of more than 1 million healthy people in eight countries, including the U.S., indicates that people who sit for more than eight hours a day but who also exercise for 60 – 75 minutes each day negate the increased risks of sitting.

But getting in 60 – 75 minutes of moderate exercise each day can be a tall order—who has the time? But there is some good news: studies have found that simply interrupting your sitting time with short breaks of movement, even just ten-minutes of stretching, can be beneficial.

So, what can do while at work to mitigate our risks? How about at home, when we’re binge-watching our favorite shows?

Sitting isn’t the default

Expert say one way to fight the effects of sitting is to, well, not do it quite so much. You should be aiming to reduce the actual number of hours each day that your derriere is in the chair. Here are few simple tips from the experts:

  • Use a standing desk at work.
  • Give yourself reminders to sit less. At home, consider a TV commercial your signal to get out of your chair briefly.
  • At work, use a smaller coffee cup or glass so your trips for refills will be more frequent.
  • Stand while watching TV or working on the computer.
  • Start your day with movement—aim for a brisk 30-minute walk before work. Need inspiration? How about adopting a four-legged friend from the local shelter to accompany you on your neighborhood excursions?
  • Get up from your desk at least once an hour. Even a five-minute stroll around the office helps.
  • Instead of sending your co-worker an email, get up out of your chair to talk with them in person.
  • Take the long way to your desk
  • Set your phone alarm to remind you to get up and move around
  • Invest in a fitness tracker
  • Use an activity app to remind you to take breaks from sitting at your desk too long

Get out of your seat

So where did the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” come from? We can thank James Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic for that. Given the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle it’s a pretty accurate comparison, one that other researchers have made as well. Authors of a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that each hour spent sitting watching television after the age of 25 reduces your life expectancy by nearly 22 minutes. To put this into perspective, the authors compared it to smoking – each cigarette reduces your life expectancy by about 11 minutes.

The good news is, unlike the tough battle most people face when they decide to kick a smoking addiction, getting up out of your seat and moving around is something that’s really pretty easy for most of us to do—if we decide to.