Is Sitting Really the New Smoking?
The catchy headline ‘Sitting is the new smoking’ has appeared more than 300 times in the media since 2010. This bold phrase, which was initially based off research linking time spent sitting with chronic diseases such as diabetes, has become gospel in many health and wellness circles. But how much merit is there to this claim? Is the mere act of sitting at a desk, or on the couch, really dangerous? If so, what’s so dangerous about it? With our kids returning to the classroom for another school year, and a majority of the modern workforce stuck behind a desk, it’s worth getting to the bottom of the question: Is sitting really the new smoking?
The Argument for Sitting as a Health Hazard
As we briefly touched on above, the argument that sitting (like smoking) is a health hazard is rooted in studies which link prolonged sitting with a host of health problems. We know that people who sit for more than eight hours per day, for example, are at double the risk of having type 2 diabetes than people who sit for less than four hours per day. There is a similar but more modest correlation between sitting a lot and suffering from diseases such as heart disease and cancer; high volumes of sitting increase the risk of these maladies by 10% and 20%, respectively.
When boiled down to all-cause mortality, high volume sitting increases the risk of death by any cause by about 25%.
Sitting Versus Smoking
As is likely quite obvious and intuitive, when we dig into the numbers on smoking, it is in a whole different league than sitting. While sitting increases the risk of all-cause mortality by 25%, smoking increases it by a staggering 180%. Smoking has been causally linked to numerous cancers, respiratory diseases, and a plethora of other life-threatening conditions. According to one study, the annual global cost of smoking-related disease was $467 Billion. From a sheer health risk standpoint, it’s incredibly misleading to compare sitting to smoking.
Why is Sitting Harmful at all?
While we've confirmed that according to the data, sitting is much less harmful than smoking, and concluded that the comparison between the two seems unfounded, it’s still worth addressing why sitting is harmful at all.
Some media outlets have suggested that the dangers of sitting revolve around its supposed biomechanical harms. Sitting, they claim, shortens our hip flexors, weakens our glute muscles, causes our backs to round, and contributes to chronic pain, poor posture, and long-term orthopedic issues.
These claims, to be blunt, are not supported by evidence.
The prevailing wisdom among serious researchers is that it’s not the position our bodies occupy while sitting, per se, which is harmful. It’s simply that sitting for long periods means you’re not moving much and likely don’t have an active lifestyle. Not moving much means you’re not burning many calories, and not burning many calories means you’re more likely to gain weight and be at risk of metabolic disease.
Until the emergence of agriculture about 12,000 years ago (a blink of an eye on an evolutionary timescale), humans existed in hunter-gatherer tribes which were always on the move. Our bodies evolved over millennia to constantly be walking, running, bending, stretching. When we stay in any position, be it sitting, standing, or reclining on a couch, the issue isn’t the position itself; the issue is that we’re not moving. When we’re sitting, our heart is not pumping. We’re not loading the musculoskeletal system, challenging our bones and muscles in a way that makes them stronger.
While we needn’t pathologize sitting on biomechanical grounds, the fact that so many of us are not getting the activity our body craves does reflect a serious mismatch between how we evolved and how many of us now live.
Here’s some good news: studies have shown that being highly physically active can enhance your health and longevity even if you sit a lot, or have a desk job. According to the research, meeting the physical activity guidelines outside of work completely offset the harms of being deskbound for most of the day.
Given this finding, here are some simple, practical tips to consider moving forward:
- Take Scheduled Breaks: If you have a desk job, try to take breaks every hour to stand, stretch, or take a brief walk. Obviously, this can be logistically difficult, but it's incredibly beneficial to punctuate your workday with small bouts of movement. You might even be more productive over the long run, too.
- Leverage Your Commute: If you do have an office job, consider walking, cycling, or transiting in if it’s logistically feasible. The same goes for short errands; instead of always hopping into the car, consider making those opportunities a sneaky way to get some exercise.
- All Movement is Good Movement: Movement doesn’t have to be structured to be effective. Sure, it can be something formal like a weight workout at the gym, a yoga class, a walk or a run. But it can also be something as simple as playing with your kids in the backyard, or going dancing with friends. All movement is good movement.
The Bottom Line
While sitting is clearly not the new smoking, there's no doubt that our sedentary lifestyles are something we all ought to address. Instead of vilifying sitting in particular, our focus should be on integrating more movement into our daily lives. After all, it’s what our bodies were designed for.
Video: Is Sitting the New Smoking? | Sara Knaeps | TEDxLeuvenSalon
Vallance, J. K., Gardiner, P. A., Lynch, B. M., D’Silva, A., Boyle, T., Taylor, L. M., ... & Owen, N. (2018). Evaluating the evidence on sitting, smoking, and health: is sitting really the new smoking?. American journal of public health, 108(11), 1478-1482.
Hartvigsen, J., Leboeuf-Yde, C., Lings, S., & Corder, E. H. (2000). Is sitting-while-at-work associated with low back pain? A systematic, critical literature review. Scandinavian journal of public health, 28(3), 230-239.