Is is true that sitting for too long is as bad as smoking?

Is is true that sitting for too long is as bad as smoking?
There has been quite a bit of talk recently about how bad sitting is for us.  Some people have even said that too much sitting is just as bad as smoking cigarettes.  I’m not sure if that is true, but it does seem pretty clear that being more active overall is associated with better health.  Just what are the risks of sitting too much?

What health conditions have been linked to sitting for long periods of time?
Research studies have linked prolonged periods of time sitting and too much sitting overall to the following health concerns:
  • Obesity
  • Increased blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Excess body fat around the waist
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels
  • Increased risk of chronic pain
  • Increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease
  • Increased risk of death from certain types of cancer
An analysis of 13 studies, which looked at sitting time and activity levels, did find that people who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to the risks of dying associated with obesity and smoking.  However, this analysis of data, which included more than 1 million people, found that 60-75 minutes of moderately intense physical activity each day actually counteracted the effects of too much sitting.  Another study found that sitting time contributed little to mortality rates for people who were the most active overall in their day-to-day lives.  Another study indicates that the problem lies in the absence of movement, rather than the time spent sitting itself.  The study author states that “Any stationary posture where energy expenditure is low may be detrimental to health, be it sitting or standing.”
We definitely need more study on this subject to really understand the effects of sitting on our overall health and risk of dying.  However, it does appear that less sitting and more moving overall can lead to better health.  Movement is the key.
Here are some things that you might do to try to decrease the amount of time you spend sitting every day.
  • Find small activities that you can do moving rather than sitting whenever you have the chance, such as pacing back and forth when talking on the phone.
  • Take a break from sitting every 30 minutes, either with a short period of standing and stretching or a quick walk around the office.  Set a timer to remind yourself.  These short breaks can also help you be more focused on your work for the remainder of day.
  • Try using a standing desk, or use a high table or counter to improvise if necessary, for at least a part of your work day.  Don’t just stand there though, try to move a little while you’re standing, even if it is just shifting from one leg to the other or moving back and forth.
  • If you have a meeting with only a few colleagues at work, try having your meeting while walking, rather than sitting in a conference room or office.
  • Instead of sending an email to a coworker, try walking over to talk to them.
  • When at home, do something active while watching TV, such as walking on a treadmill, riding a stationary bike, standing while folding some clothes, or doing some stretching exercises.
  • Rather than sitting in a chair, try sitting on a stability ball at your desk or while watching TV. This forces you use your muscles to stay upright.
  • Don’t forget to get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most days.
If you are generally sedentary, spending a good deal of your day sitting, you may be surprised at the impact that movement can have on your health and well-being.  Even leisurely movement uses more energy and burns more calories than sitting.  This might lead to some weight loss or a general feeling of increased energy.  Physical movement also helps maintain muscle tone, flexibility, and your ability to move and balance, which is more important as we get older.  It also decreases chronic pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain and other conditions.  It helps to improve blood sugar and blood pressure levels.  Physical activity can also have a big impact on your mental health by promoting a better chemical balance in your brain.  We should all get up and move more!

If you have any more questions just Ask Hanna, our health advisors are here to help.

Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor
Image: ©Shutterstock / DimaBerlin

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