Sitting – the new smoking?

Over the last few years, quite a number of studies have shown that sitting for extended periods of time can have a detrimental effect on your health. This has resulted in a few headlines calling sitting ‘the new smoking’ – but is this true? Several scientists disagree…

WHY SITTING IS NOT THE NEW SMOKING

Although the detrimental effects of sitting cannot be disputed (read more about this further below), a number of researchers are concerned that this positioning trivialises how extremely dangerous smoking is for your health.

Their point is that, while research suggests that excessive sitting (eight hours or more per day) increases the risk of premature death and some chronic diseases by 10-20%, this pales in comparison to the risks associated with smoking, which increases the risk of premature death from any cause by approximately 180%. (Which is why, if you are still smoking, we suggest you read our next article on how the Scheme can support you in kicking the habit.)

Furthermore, they argue, sitting (unlike smoking) is not addictive and does not harm the people around you. However, that does not mean that sitting for extended periods is not harmful – in certain situations it is indeed very detrimental to one’s health.

WHAT THE EVIDENCE SAYS

In short, studies have shown that the link between sitting long hours and, for example, developing diabetes type 2, is not all that strong in people who manage to get enough exercise (for example, a doctor who sits most of the day but gyms or exercises regularly outside of work hours).

However, for people who are physically inactive, the story is different. Two recent studies show the total time spent sitting per day is linked with developing diabetes when the subjects are physically inactive or both physically inactive and obese.

It would seem that sitting as such is not the problem. The problem is a generally sedentary lifestyle. We sit in our cars and drive to work for 30 minutes, then sit at our desks the whole day, drive home, spend the evening slouching in front of the TV, before crawling into bed… and then, the next day, we repeat the cycle.

TIPS TO MINIMISE HEALTH RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH SITTING

  • MOVE! Consider cycling to work, or walking during your lunch hour. If you are meeting a colleague, consider taking a stroll to discuss work, rather than sitting at your desk.
  • Stand while on a telephone call.
  • Try to move often during the day, even if it just means stretching or taking 250 steps every hour.
  • Get at least 45 minutes of more intense exercise three times per week. (If you are unfit, speak to your doctor before starting any exercise routine.)
  • Consider using a treadmill or exercise bike while watching TV, so you can binge-watch and stay healthy!

WILL A STANDING DESK HELP?

While adjustable desks that allow a sitting and standing option (sit-stand desks) are being marketed widely (and being praised by many converts) as the solution to sitting too much, it is not the total answer. People still do not expend much energy, or exert themselves, by using these desks. Studies are also lukewarm about their health benefits.

If you do consider using a standing desk, read more about their use before putting your regular desk away. People have been known to convert totally to a standing desk, only to discover a few days or weeks later that they have now developed pain in their feet, legs and/or lower back. A standing desk should preferably only be used for short periods, to break a long period of sitting.

Sources and more reading:
theconversation.com
sciencedaily.com
betterhealth.vic.gov.au
mayoclinic.org