Is Sitting Really the New Smoking?

May 13, 2019
Ashley Lawrie

Author: Riley Pearce
Social Media Director
Personal Trainer – Byward Market

We’re sure that many of you have heard the shock-headline that sitting is the new major threat to our health. But is there merit to this claim? And can we truly compare it to the detrimental health effects of smoking? Read on to find out.

Where Did this Come From?In a quick Google search, I found many articles warning about the threat of sitting to our health. A few pages in I found an article back from 2013 from the Harvard Business Review with the headline, “Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation”.

According to one article, the number of articles and research papers published talking about the threat of sitting in comparison to our health increased 12-fold between the years of 2012 and 2016. Which could have sprung from the New York Times article in 2011 titled, “Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?”

Turns out this idea that sedentary lifestyle can negatively affect our health has been around since the late 90’s.

The Research

Between 1999 and 2000 a large scale study was published detailing the metabolic effects of sedentary behaviour. Sitting and general sedentary behaviour can affect the body in a few different ways.

  • Metabolic rate slows. To help conserve energy while we are doing nothing, the body adapts by slowing down the metabolism. This is why snacking at your desk can be a major factor in sneaky weight gain.
  • The production of the enzymes that clean up the blood vessels of harmful cholesterol and free fatty acids declines. So by sitting, you are putting yourself at a higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
  • Sitting affects your blood glucose levels as well, as the body is less efficient at producing the insulin required to lower blood-glucose levels. This puts you at a higher risk for obesity and developing type 2 diabetes.

The research also shows that even if you are meeting the guidelines for 150 min/week of moderate-vigorous physical activity, but then spending the rest of your time sitting, that all of these negative effects will still occur. If you’re a woman, the research showed that these consequences of sitting are more extreme in women than in men.

The Upside to the Research

There is some hope for those of you who are desk bound for work, or find yourself on long-haul flights or drives for work.

Even the slightest bit of extra movement, as simple as bending down to tie your shoe, can cut into the sitting time and protect you from the harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle. It’s this new science known as NEAT science, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (thermogenesis meaning creation of heat – in our case burning calories/stimulating metabolism).

Activities like taking the stairs, taking a break every hour to get water or walk around, standing up and doing a few squats at your desk, going for a walk at lunch, getting off the bus a few stops early to walk the rest of the way – all of these will contribute to your total active minutes throughout the day, and therefore tip the scales in favour of movement.

Is Sitting Really As Bad As Smoking

We cannot argue that sitting is pretty bad for our health. All of the consequences listed above should be taken seriously and should inspire you to include more movement in your day.

But is sitting really as bad as smoking?

Turns out this isn’t a fair comparison at all. Especially when articles are starting to suggest that smoking is less harmful than sitting. If you had a sample size of 100,000 people, about 190 excess (unnecessary) deaths would occur from sitting. For smoking that number is 2000 excess deaths.

So obviously smoking is not good for our health – this is something we should all be aware of. Is it fair to compare sitting to smoking in a literal way? Probably not. But for the sake of shock-value, grouping sitting in with smoking as a health risk helps us understand just how bad this simple part of life can be. We should not take inactivity lightly, and should all start emphasizing more movement everyday. That does not mean adding a 5k run to your day, although that would certainly help. It can be as simple as tying your shoe. Keep it simple and get moving!

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