Sitting is the new smoking and what to do about it
Earlier this year, precedence-setting research was released suggesting that a sedentary lifestyle is worse for your health and longevity then smoking, which is known to be one of the worst habits some of us practice on a daily basis. What makes this research scary is that even people who regularly hit the gym will still fall into the high risk category.  How can this be?  And more importantly, what can you do about it if this is you?

The human body was not designed for extended periods of sitting. Throughout most of our evolution we were walking and on our feet, squatting (there were no chairs in the hunter-gatherer periods of our evolution!) or lying down sleeping episodically (evidence shows we did not sleep extended periods, but took a series of sleep periods throughout the 24-hour cycle).  Our current daily life habits have us sitting anywhere from 8 to 18 hours per day for extended periods of time.  Examples include sitting at an office job for eight hours a day; sitting in college classes sometimes for three hours at a time; and sitting either at our computers, watching TV or going to the movies for hours at a time.

Extended sitting is bad for us for a few reasons.  First, the sitting position places force on the skeletal system that it is not built to accommodate.  The neutral spinal curves that are made for shock absorption when upright are corrupted.  This isn’t helped by the fact that most of us sit with our lower back rounded and hips tucked under, thereby reversing the natural lumbar curve and setting the stage for lower back, hip and pelvic issues.  Thus, circulation issues and joint and muscle aches and pains can and do result.

Second, sitting burns very little calories.  An office worker can expect to burn approximately 300 calories per day at work.  In comparison,  a mail carrier can burn upwards of 2,300 calories for the same eight-hour work shift.   Ultimately, obesity is the result of the total energy expenditure across the whole day. If we are sitting and burning very little, then we have to take in very little in order to avoid getting fat.  But as we all well know, sitting so long actually leads us to eat more to get the “energy” to sit and stay focused or to combat psychological boredom or work stress.   We eat high-calorie density snacks and foods at work which throws the energy out (low when sitting) and energy in (higher than necessary due to sedentary lifestyle) equation into a weight gaining formula!

Finally, by burning so little, our risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity increase exponentially.  Why?  Because without movement we become insulin-resistant, which causes trouble metabolizing sugar (which we are all eating while sitting at work!). This sets us up for risk of diabetes.  Sitting also has been shown to suppress the production of lipoprotein lipase which is necessary for the conversion of turning bad cholesterol into the good.  This sets us up for risks of heart disease.

And here is something that was not clear in the original release of the research:  even if you go to the gym or exercise for an hour or more a day, you are still at risk of the sedentary lifestyle. The benefits of the exercise starts to wear off within an hour or so, so if you then sit for extended periods of time during the day, you increase your risk.  Research has shown that those who exercise and even those who do triathlons and train extensively, actually burn less calories in the rest of the day then those who don’t.  The reason is that they feel they have burned a lot of calories and are tired; therefore they engage in less activity throughout the rest of the day.

What can you do?
The critical issue is that we need to break up the extended periods of sitting that we all seem to do.  Around the country several solutions are being instituted to try to reverse our sedentary lifestyle.  In the US, approximately 60,000 treadmill desks have been purchased.  These are treadmills with a desk where the console would be so you can stand up and walk at relatively slow speeds while working.  Also, sitting on an exercise stability ball in place of a normal chair is another way to off-set the extended sitting forces on your skeletal system.  

Getting up every hour and taking a cruise around the hallway or up a few flights of stairs is another way to break up the episodes of sitting. Standing at a counter when on your computer at home another option.

Purchasing a pedometer or one of the newer activity monitors or downloading an app is helpful for people who like to see hard copy data of their own activity patterns.  These devices help motivate you to get more the next day; making it more like a game then a chore.

Please remember that even though you are working out for an hour or two a day, if the rest of your day is spent sitting, you are most likely still at high risk for obesity, joint and muscle pains and diabetes and heart disease just like people who don’t exercise.  Make it a point to break up extended periods of inactivity with the tips above for a healthier lifestyle.

Judy Torel is a USAT certified coach, has a Master’s degree as a psychotherapist/life coach, is a certified metabolic nutrition coach, 200 RYT yoga instructor, and ACSM certified fitness specialist. She is an ultra-distance runner and 6 time Ironman competitor. She can be reached at and her office is located at 116 Everett Road, Albany.


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