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.
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.
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.