Why Sitting is the New Smoking, Part 1

Ever since I heard author Tom Rath use this phrase several years ago in a podcast interview promoting his best selling book Eat, Move, Sleep, I’ve been actively interested in the science behind this provocative phrase, “sitting is the new smoking.” Although it’s no secret that sitting too much can make you fat and lazy (think coach potato status), comparing it to smoking seems a little extreme.

The research, however, begs to differ. Here are three surprising reasons why people who spend the majority of their day sitting are putting their health at risk — nearly as risky as smoking cigarettes.

via Active.com

1) According to a 13-year study by the American Cancer Society, Americans who sit for six or more hours a day verses three or fewer hours have a dramatically greater risk of dying prematurely from a preventable illness like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. Similar studies by the American Journal of Epidemiology and The American Center of Cancer Research reveal startlingly similar findings.
2) In a 12-year study of more than 17,000 Canadians, researchers found that the more time people spent sitting, the earlier they died — regardless of age, body weight, or how much they exercised.
3) A 2013 survey of nearly 30,000 women found that those who sat nine or more hours a day were more likely to be depressed than those who sat fewer than six hours a day, discovering that prolonged sitting reduces circulation, causing fewer feel-good hormones to reach your brain.

In Eat, Move, Sleep, Tom Rath described sitting as the most underrated health threat of modern times.

“No matter how much you exercise, eat well, avoid smoking, or add other healthy habits, excessive sitting will cause problems. Every hour you spend on your rear end… saps your energy and ruins your health.”

After reading Rath’s book and reviewing some of the research, I began to take a personal inventory of how much sitting I do every day — driving to work, attending meetings, sitting in my office on the phone, even cutting the lawn on my riding mower. I was surprised, and as a serious fitness addict — I work out five to six days a week — I found it even more surprising that, according to the research, exercise has no impact on the risk factors of sitting. Although running does much good for you, researchers contend if you spend the rest of your waking hours sitting, those health benefits depreciate.

via Illinois Back Institute Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., is a professor and director of the Inactivity Physiology Department at Pennington Biomedical Research Center. “Your body is designed to move,” Hamilton says. “Sitting for an extended period of time causes your body to shut down at the metabolic level.” When your muscles, especially certain leg muscles, are immobile, your circulation slows. So you use less of your blood sugar and you burn less fat, which increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Workrite Ergonomics offers visual with summaries of recent research findings in their Sitting vs. Standing At Work: How Prolonged Sitting Can Affect Your Health infographic.

Does this mean we will soon be seeing Surgeon General warning labels on chairs and sofas or “no-sitting” ordinances in public places? Not likely. Instead, combating this new health threat will require some basic changes in your daily habits. Next week, I’ll share some simple strategies I’ve used to get more vertical every day.

How about you? Do you find this research surprising? Scary? Hard to believe? How much time do you spend sitting verses standing every day? Share your comments with me.

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    6 Responses to Why Sitting is the New Smoking, Part 1

    1. Dana Pratt June 3, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

      My first experience at standing while I was trying to problem-solve a computer situation (that I would normally be sitting) gave me the frustrating sensation that I wasn’t going to be able to figure out the issue, unless I was sitting. A powerful habit to overcome!

    2. Sharon Mavis June 4, 2015 at 9:44 am #

      I had a professor who said he couldn’t think anymore except through his fingers at a keyboard. I feel myself becoming that way, too. I’m addicted to drafting what I want to say and editing or rearranging my thoughts. I’m looking forward to your suggestions for countering the trend to sit, sit, sit.

      • Bill Marsh Jr June 4, 2015 at 1:00 pm #


        Thank you for responding to my post!

        The good news is, there is little you cannot do standing that you currently peform sitting. For example, as I type this, I am standing with a portable laptop stand perched on top of my desk. Frankly, I find that I think better, have more energy, and am more alert since I started standing more. Give it a try–you can purchase one of these stands for less than $50 on Amazon.com.

    3. Donna Paulson June 25, 2015 at 11:32 am #

      The information puts my thoughts towards the thinking that if exercise doesn’t combat the effects of sitting, there really isn’t much hope. Some days I sit more than others, causing tightness in my shoulder muscles from typing, and some days I am on my feel all day long, making for sore legs, feet and back. I try to get up every hour and move about. My husband implemented the stand for typing at his work place as his job involves a lot of sitting. We hear about cause and effect; there must be a positive cause that affects the effect of sitting. If exercise does not help towards this effect on our heath then why would standing to type help? We hear about balancing work and play etc. Exercise gets the blood flowing bringing oxygen to the body. That seems like it would be a good balance between sitting and movement. What about sleeping? We are not moving while we sleep, although sleep is good to the body, most people sleep with their legs bent. This just does not make sense to me. It sounds like nothing will improve your health if you have an occupation where you sit. What about people who are wheelchair bound? Lots of questions.

      • Bill Marsh Jr June 25, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

        Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Donna. I, too, am surprised at the research findings on what little difference exercise seems to make in reducing the negative effects of sitting on your healthspan. However, here are a few points that may help clarify things:
        -The core issue isn’t sitting itself but the average length of time you spend sitting: anything more than seven or eight hours a day, according to studies, leads to health problems. Sitting few than six hours a day doesn’t seem to be an issue.
        -Regarding sleeping, the research suggests that sitting creates unique circulatory problelms caused by constant pressure on your glutes, hips and thighs that aren’t assoicated with sleeping, even with your knees bent.
        -Wheelchair bound people actually provide supporting evidence of the problems with sitting as most have a significantly reduced life span.
        Research like this, though troubling, is valuable information that can help us live healthier lives. If you can incorporate just a few of the suggestions from my “Part 2” post, I think it will be a difference maker for you.


    1. Why Sitting is the New Smoking, Part 2 | Bill Marsh Jr. - June 11, 2015

      […] my last post, I shared the surprising research that has surfaced in the last two years linking prolonged periods […]

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