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The truth about the health effects of sitting

December 31, 2019
Lily Moran

Several years ago, a study reported on the health effects of sedentary behavior. And when its findings made the rounds, the catchy new phrase, “Sitting is the new smoking,” was coined. As a result, a whole new segment of office furniture—standing or treadmill desks—surged in popularity.

Of course, no one would ever dispute that being sedentary for prolonged (8+ hours) periods of time, day after day, is bad for your health. It increases risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and so much more.

But, is sitting for too long really as harmful as smoking—an undisputedly deadly habit that kills 7 million people worldwide every year?

Turns out, it’s not.

Smoking Vs Sitting: There’s No Comparison

According to a study published in 2018 in the American Journal of Public Health, smoking is largely considered “one of the greatest public health disasters of the 20th century,” and you simply can’t compare it to prolonged sitting.

The researchers claim that, while excessive sitting DOES raise the risk of chronic disease and premature death by 10–20 percent, the risks pale in comparison to those of smoking—which increases the risk of lung cancer by 1,000 percent and premature death from any cause by 180 percent.1

Moreover, the economic impact caused by problems related to smoking far outweighs those of sitting. And, unlike smoking, sitting isn’t addictive or a danger to those around you.

Couch-Potato Sitting Vs Work Sitting

So, sitting is not the new smoking. But that doesn’t mean that coach potato behavior is off the hook.

It appears that there are scenarios involving prolonged sitting that can harm your health more than others. Research published in 2019 discovered a big difference in the cardiovascular risk associated with occupational sitting (working at a desk job) compared to sitting while watching TV.

The trial involved a total of 3,592 people who were enrolled in the Jackson Heart Study, a study of African-Americans living in Jackson, MS. Daily television viewing (less than two hours, 2-4 hours, or more than four hours) and occupational sitting (never/seldom, sometimes, often/always) were self-reported.

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Over 8+ years, those who watched the most TV had the greatest risk for cardiovascular events or death compared to those who watched the least.

In contrast, the researchers found that the people who sat the longest at their jobs did not have increased cardiovascular risk compared to those who sat the least.

The researchers concluded, “These findings suggest that minimizing television viewing may be more effective for reducing cardiovascular disease and mortality risk in [African American populations] compared with reducing occupational sedentary behavior.”

The thinking here is that, once you sit down to start watching TV, you get into a “zone” and rarely move, much less get up to stretch and move your muscles. It’s not so hard to believe, considering how binge-watching a TV show for 10 straight hours (or longer) is a relatively new phenomenon made possible by streaming services. If you’ve ever binge-watched a show, you know!

On the other hand, most people who work in an office stand up and move around pretty frequently, whether it’s to talk to a coworker, pick up papers from the printer, get a glass of water, go to the bathroom, or attend a meeting. They may spend a lot of time sitting, but these breaks get your blood flowing, improve oxygen levels, and move your muscles, among other benefits.

Small Changes Make a Big Difference

The takeaway here is that every little bit of movement you can get during the day matters, even if it’s only a minute at a time.

Whether you’re at home watching TV or at work, stand up at least once an hour and walk around for a few minutes. If you have a hard time remembering to do this, then keep a refillable stainless steel water bottle by your side and sip on it constantly. This forces you to get up regularly as you’ll need to both refill your bottle and use the bathroom frequently. As an added bonus, you stay hydrated, which has countless benefits of its own.

If it’s in your budget, consider buying a smart watch. Some brands will buzz or ding every hour to remind and encourage you to stand up and move around.

Here are some other small changes you can make in your daily routine to increase movement—and in turn, prevent cardiovascular and other health issues.

  • During phone or conference calls, pace the room.
  • While watching TV, lift light weights. Stand up and move during all commercial breaks.
  • Fidget while you work. It burns more calories than you think.
  • Always take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator.
  • Walk more briskly than your usual pace.
  • Read a book. Watching TV is one of the lowest calorie-burning activities you can do. If you want to chill out on the couch for a while, pick up a book instead or turning on the television. Not only does reading enrich your mind, it burns far more calories than TV watching since it requires active brain engagement.

Every little thing you can do to add movement and exercise to your day matters. So, if you’re looking for a simple and achievable resolution for 2020, here you have it!

References

  1. Vallance JK, et al. Evaluating the evidence on sitting, smoking, and health: Is sitting really the new smoking? Am J Public Health. 2018 Nov;108(11):1478-82. Last accessed Dec. 17, 2019.
  2. Garcia JM, et al. Types of sedentary behavior and risk of cardiovascular events and mortality in blacks: The Jackson Heart Study. J Am Heart Assoc. 2019 Jul 2;8(13):e010406. Last accessed Dec. 17, 2019.

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