Is sitting really the new smoking?

How and why being sedentary is harmful and what we can do about it.

We all know that exercise is good for our health and overall wellbeing, but what many of us don’t appreciate is that sitting for prolonged periods is actually harmful for our health even if we are optimally active the rest of the time.

According to Public Health England data, being inactive is linked for 1 in 6 UK deaths – at population level this is comparable to smoking. Hence, the saying “Sitting is the new smoking“. However, although sitting for prolonged periods is harmful, as we shall see below, at individual level, smoking is still far worse.

Evidence shows that sedentary behaviour increases our risk of heart disease and many cancers, and at least doubles our risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This clearly has great implications for those of us that have desk jobs,  use motorised transport or sit a lot when at home.

We know that when we are more active, we can help reduce the risk of many conditions including:

  • Cardiovascular disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes
  • Breast and colon cancer
  • Alzheimer’s dementia, depression, and musculoskeletal ill-health.

Being more active has also been shown to improve quality of life through better symptom control, as well as helping to treat over 20 conditions, including certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, lower back pain, asthma, depression and anxiety. 

How does physical activity reduce our risk of disease?

Chronic low-grade inflammation is thought to be the root cause of many disease processes. Being active reduces our overall inflammation through two main paths.

  • Firstly, it reduces our visceral fat. This is that fat usually hidden around our organs and in our muscle tissue and is pro-inflammatory.  This visceral fat is lost preferentially over our subcutaneous fat (the fat we can see and feel) when we exercise and so reduces our overall inflammation.
  • Secondly, when we exercise, we increase our muscle bulk and in turn this releases more anti-inflammatory hormones which also reduce that inflammation.

Being sedentary increases the release of free radicals in our body. These damage our cells and promote that toxic inflammation which is linked to all those diseases. When we are active we limit that damage and actually protect our cells.

How often should we be getting up and moving?

There are no guidelines on this yet. The best thing to do is to get up often – every 20-30 minutes if you can or at least every hour and move about, stretch a little, before sitting back down again.

And thinking in energy terms:

Standing for 3 hours a day burns the same amount of calories as running 10 marathons over a year! 

Top tips for sitting less

My standing desk

At work consider:

  • Investing in or using a standing desk. I bought mine (above) from Healthy Home and Office * in Ripley. They have a great range there and are incredibly helpful.
  • Walking meetings with clients or peers – you might actually have more constructive conversations and better outcomes, a bit like when you are side to side in a car. One colleague I know does this particularly when stuck on a creative project. Another works as a mental health nurse and finds that it works really well for the clients too.
  • Standing meetings – sometimes used in the city to make decisions quicker, but great for our health too.
  • Walking or standing calls – watch Dr Muir Gray’s clip on this here.
  • Get up to chat to colleagues rather than pinging a text or e-mail.
  • Get outside for a walk or break when you can.
  • Use the stairs rather than the escalator or lift
  • Drink lots of water – as well as being good for your health (within reason of course), it might get you up to use the bathroom.

At home consider:

  • Doing your weekly or adhoc food shop in person. Or even better, walking to your local shops and supporting our local businesses at the same time!
  • Cooking from scratch – keeps you on your feet for longer than a take away or ready meal.
  • Having frequent breaks when you are watching TV or a film. What about going that one step further and using the breaks to do some quick strength building or cardio exercises?!
  • Setting rules on your screen time – read more on the benefits of unplugging here. 
  • Meeting friends or family for a walk to catch up rather than for a seated coffee or tea. You can always bring your coffee with you!

There are clearly many more ways that you can be less sedentary, the key thing is to find ways that resonate with you and that you will stick with.

“This whole life is an art of knowing when to sit and when to stand up!” 
Mehmet Murat Ildan 

What ways could you move more and sit less?

2 thoughts on “Is sitting really the new smoking?

  1. Pingback: Is sitting really the new smoking? — Dr Kate Little | Natural Remedies for Restless Leg Syndrome

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