Sitting is the New Smoking

Sitting smoking

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but in February of 2020 I gave a talk at a business lunch about the dangers of sitting which I believe is the 2nd biggest elephant in the room in society when it comes to public health.

I assumed this is common knowledge. This can be a challenge for a personal trainer, something you find common sense and obvious isn’t so common and obvious.

The feedback I received after that talk astounded me. The talk was a little alarmist, but sometimes that’s what we need to get moving (pun intended). So, I’m not going to apologize if this comes across as alarmist, because it might just save your life. Sounds hyperbolic yeah? Keep reading.

I didn’t come up with the term sitting is the new smoking. That was said by Researcher Dr Levine of the Mayo clinic after he cited a study that combined the results of 18 other studies and almost 800k participants.

What was the results?

  • 112% increased risk of diabetes.
  • 147% increased risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke.
  • 90% increased risk of death from cardiovascular events.
  • 49% increased risk of death from any cause.

This is from sitting an average of 8 hours/day or more.

If you’re a desk jockey, this is you.

The same research shows you still have an increased risk even if you get the recommended 150min of active exercise each week.

Picture it, you are a middle-aged person, who exercises regularly, eats well, health conscious but you sit an average of 8 hours a day. You are at a similar risk of a shortened life as a smoker.

To add to that, if you sit 8 hours or more a day, no matter how much you exercise, you are defined as sedentary.

Prolonged sitting also has a profound effect on your metabolism (weight), posture (back, shoulder, neck pain) and depression.

I had never experienced back pain. But during our lockdown, even though I maintained a solid exercise regime and daily steps, I experienced it for the first time. I didn’t enjoy it.

Admittedly, not all research is linear, but evidence looks like the dose response risks heightened from 7 hours onwards. The body of literature compared to smoking is tiny.

Think of sitting like sunshine. You need it (vitamin D), but you stand in the sun 8 hours a day for years on end, your risk of skin cancer is exponential.

Arguments proving sitting being the new smoking I believe is still a work in progress. In the meantime, we should not dismiss the public health impact still being caused by the century-long epidemic of cigarette smoking. It’s taken 50 years of research for (most) people to get the memo that smoking isn’t good. Hopefully the effects of sitting research won’t take that long. But we are essentially the first generation that will spend most of our lives sitting. It will be a case of too little too late for most of us I feel.

And although sitting may still not equate to smoking, we should also not underestimate the potential threat of it reaching the ranks to becoming the new smoking. Like smoking, too much sitting can be avoided and there is substantial evidence on the health benefits of following the currently recommended medical intervention.

And like any bad habit, a resolution can be successfully achieved if it is not constantly overturned by the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to health…..inaction.