Expert says Why Sitting has become the New Smoking: Explained
When you think of something that could be life-threatening, you generally don't think about your chair at work. But many experts say it poses a serious risk to human health.
Research reveals that you can minimize your odds of cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and back discomfort, all with one easy lifestyle change: reduce the time you spend sitting.
"Sitting is more harmful than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more risky than parachuting. According to Mayo Clinic professor of medicine James Levine, "we are sitting ourselves to death." This was quoted in an article by the Los Angeles Times. The chair is trying to kill us, they say.
You may have heard the adage, “sitting is the new smoking,” which is credited to Dr. Levine. Not only does he think we're sitting ourselves to death, but he's not alone. While others may disagree, an increasing body of data backs up his assertion and the advantages of standing workstations.
"We weren't made to sit,” asserts Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals. "The body is a perpetual motion mechanism."
Dr. Levine estimates that, in the US, we spend more than half of our waking hours sitting down, either watching TV, driving, or sitting at a desk at work or home.
Despite what some may believe, regular exercise does not cancel out the negative effects of sitting for long periods of time.
You may be thinking, “But I work out many times per week.” The research demonstrates that despite exercise is excellent for you, it doesn’t erase the damage done by extended durations of sitting.
The Pennington Biomedical Research Center's Professor Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., told Men's Health, "We observe it in people who smoke and people who don't. Both regular exercisers and non-exercisers exhibit this trait. As a separate contributor to disease, sitting is a serious problem.
Further, he says, "The solution for too much sitting isn't additional exercise. "Exercise is great, no doubt about it, but the ordinary person just can't move around enough to make up for all the time they spend sitting."
"You can't offset 10 hours of inactivity with one hour of exercise," Katy Bowman, a scientist and the author of the book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health through Natural Movement, told Reuters.
So why is that? Long periods of sitting alter your metabolic rate. Director of Active Working, an international organization working to reduce excessive sitting, Gavin Bradley, offers this explanation: "Metabolism slows down by 90% after 30 minutes of sitting. As a result, the rate at which harmful fat is shuttled from your arteries to your muscles, where it may be burned, decreases. Your leg muscles are completely relaxed. Additionally, there is a 20% decline in HDL cholesterol after only two hours. If you get up and move about for even five minutes, you'll notice a difference. Almost to the point of being foolish, these things are really straightforward.
Toni Yancey, a professor at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health, explains, "Sitting halts electrical activity in the legs. It reduces the good HDL cholesterol in the blood by making the body less sensitive to insulin, causing calorie burning to drop, and preventing the breakdown of harmful blood fats.
Fat Gain from Prolonged Sedentary Behavior
Dr. Levine wanted to know why some individuals acquire weight while others don't, so he began studying the risks of sitting and the advantages of standing workstations. His research involved putting sedentary office workers on a 1,000-calorie diet without requiring them to alter their current activity levels. As a result, some people got fatter while others got leaner.
Then he had everyone wear underwear equipped with sensors to track their activity levels all day long. There was a missing piece of the puzzle, and they found it: people in the group who lost weight were more active overall, on average, by 2.25 hours per day.
Standing instead of sitting increases calorie expenditure by about 50 calories per hour. You can burn 750 calories in a week if you stand for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. It's almost 9 pounds, or 30,000 calories, over the course of a year. Dr. Levine is a strong advocate of standing desks since sitting all day is the equivalent of running around 10 marathons each year.
Sitting Causes Back, Neck, and Sciatica Pain
The Department of Ergonomics at Cornell University discovered that sitting puts up to 90 percent greater strain on your lower back than standing does.
Back pain is one of the most frequent health conditions in the United States, with one in four persons feeling back pain at least once every three months, as reported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Switching to a stand-up desk is often cited as a means to alleviate back and neck problems. Postural kyphosis, in which the head and shoulders curve forward, can occur if your monitor is lower than eye level and you stare down at your phone often during the day. In addition to causing exhaustion, the kyphotic posture known as "postural kyphosis" can induce pain in the neck and back.
At George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health, Loretta DiPietro, chair of the department of exercise science, has been studying the negative impacts of sitting for long periods of time. She lost weight and no longer experiences painful stabbing sensations in her legs after she cut down on her daily sitting time.
If you suffer from chronic back or neck pain, spend most of your day seated, and don't practice good posture, your sedentary lifestyle may be to blame.
High Rates of Sedentary Behavior with the Development of Cancer
There are several forms of cancer that scientists say can be avoided by being active. Epidemiologist Christine Friedenreich from Alberta Health Services-Cancer Care in Canada predicts that inactivity contributes to 173,000 cases of cancer in the United States, including 49,000 cases of breast cancer and 43,000 cases of colon cancer. Physical inactivity has also been associated to an increase in the rates of lung cancer (37,200 cases), prostate cancer (30,600 cases), endometrial cancer (12,000 cases), and ovarian cancer (1,800 cases). There is a possibility that all of these are connected to sitting too much.
Scientists have identified many biomarkers, including a C-reactive protein, which are present at higher levels in people who sit for long periods of time, but the exact process by which sitting raises cancer risk is still unknown (source: Live Science).
Too much sitting can cause heart problems
The History of Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota features an intriguing research from 1953 on London bus drivers. British researchers looked examined the correlation between sitting and heart disease in London bus drivers and conductors. There were significantly more heart attacks and other health problems among the drivers who sat all day compared to those who stood.
Dr. James Levine referenced a study that examined the health of persons who spent less than two hours per day in front of screens vs those who spent more than four. More frequent viewers tended to have:
- There is an almost 50% higher chance of dying unexpectedly
- The likelihood of experiencing cardiovascular disease-related events like angina or a heart attack increases by about 125%.
Excessive sitters were 34% more likely to get heart failure than those who were standing or moving, and this was true even after researchers accounted for the quantity of activity people got.
The risk of heart failure was more than double for men who sat for at least 5 hours a day outside of work and didn't exercise very much, compared with physically active men who sat for less than 2 hours a day. This was according to research conducted by Dr. Deborah Rohm of Kaiser Permanente in Pasadena, California.
In another study conducted in 2010, researchers from the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina found that men who reported spending more than 23 hours per week sitting had a 64 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease than those who spent less than 11 hours per week sitting.
Increased prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes and Sedentary Lifestyle
Dr. Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist and research fellow in biology at Imperial College London, explains the study in an article for The New York Times: "Men who normally walk a lot (about 10,000 steps per day, as measured by a pedometer) were asked to cut back (to about 1,350 steps per day) for 2 weeks, by using elevators instead of stairs, driving to work instead of walking, and so on. As the two weeks progressed, they all experienced a decline in their ability to metabolize carbohydrates and fatty acids. Their body fat has also shifted, making them plumper in the middle. Changes like this are among the earliest indicators of diabetes.
People who took the greatest breaks from sitting had lower triglyceride levels, according to a research published in 2008 by the Cancer Prevention Research Centre at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia (as well as smaller waists and a lower body mass index). The likelihood of developing diabetes is seen to rise in tandem with triglyceride levels.
One study published in the National Institute of Health is just one of many that links sitting for long periods of time to metabolic syndrome, which greatly raises your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Sitting time was found to be more significant than exercise time in a study conducted in 2013.
The American Diabetes Association released a study that links prolonged sitting and TV watching to increased cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. What we found:
Waist circumference, body mass index, systolic blood pressure, fasting triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, 2-hour post-load plasma glucose, and fasting insulin were all negatively associated with sitting time for both sexes (all P 0.05), but fasting plasma glucose and diastolic blood pressure were not (men only). After further adjusting for waist circumference, the relationships remained significant with the exception of HDL cholesterol and systolic blood pressure in women. Excessive TV watching was related negatively with all metabolic indicators in women and with all measures in men, except for HDL cholesterol and blood pressure. After accounting for BMI, the adverse association between TV watching and fasting insulin and glucose was only observed in men.
Sitting for Long Periods of Time Reduces Longevity
Australian researchers showed that people who sat for longer than recommended increased their risk of dying by 11% over the course of 7 years. The average American's life expectancy would increase by 2 years if they cut their sitting time to 3 hours per day, according to a study conducted in 2012.
Study participants who sat for 11 or more hours per day had a 40% higher risk of dying within three years compared to those who sat for less than four hours per day, according to research conducted in Australia.
Studies conducted by the American Cancer Society found that women who sat for more than six hours per day had a 37% higher risk of dying prematurely than those who sat for three hours or less per day. There was a 17% higher risk among men.