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Why sitting is the new smoking

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If sitting is so relaxing, why is it bad for you? The problem lies in how much of it, and for how long, we sit each day.

By Nosa Iyamu

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Most of us sit for hours every day – in traffic, at work, or while we watch our favorite TV shows at night. The shocking reality is that all this sitting for hours on end may be killing us.

Sitting may seem like a harmless activity, but medical experts say that doing so for long periods every day is associated with serious health problems like Type 2 diabetes, joint pain, blood clotting, and cardiovascular disease.

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You may have heard the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking”, which is credited to Dr. James Levine, Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. He has spent years studying the science of sitting, and the unintentional danger we put ourselves in each day by leading sedentary lives.

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Human bodies were not designed to sit as much as we do, says Dr. Levine. Our ancestors spent most of their lives upright as they hunted for, and grew food – only occasionally sitting down for breaks. In his book Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You, he states that we’ve gone from an ancient world of movers to a modern world of chair sloths.

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If sitting is so relaxing, why is it bad for you? The problem lies in how much of it, and for how long, we sit each day. When our bodies are in a static position for a lengthy period, all kinds of bad things happen, such as blood circulation – which is crucial for good health – slows down, affecting every system of the body.

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Poor blood circulation allows fatty acids to build up in the blood vessels, leading to heart disease. And, according to World Thrombosis Day, another risk is that when your legs remain still for hours, your calf muscles don’t contract, which normally helps blood circulate. This can lead to deep vein thrombosis (DVT), where clots form in the calves of your legs if your calf muscles don’t move for long periods.

DVT is a serious problem. If a part of the blood clot breaks off it can travel to the lungs, and cause blockages. This is called a pulmonary embolism (PE), and it may be fatal.

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What you can do

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Try and assess how many hours you spend “bottom-bound” in a day, including commuting to work, sitting at your desk, running errands in your car, and on the couch at night. Added up, it’s probably more than you think. Children who lead a sedentary life and sit for hours playing video games and watching TV instead of playing outside are at risk of health complications, too.

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It’s clear that excessive sitting is impacting people negatively, just as smoking has over the years, so how can you break the habit? It’s not enough to just stand up all day long, says Dr. Helen Okoye, a leading Nigerian thrombosis specialist who is part of the global World Thrombosis Day steering committee.

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Having your body stay still in any static position – whether it’s sitting, standing, or lying down – day after day isn’t good for you. And, she adds, while it’s important to exercise, like going for a run or to the gym, exercise alone is not enough to offset the negative effects of too much sitting. Sitting is an independent risk factor, and its solution lies in incorporating as much movement into your day as you can.

Stay moving

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“It’s all the little movements we do in the day that matter. The trick is to build movement into every part of your life,” advises Dr. Okoye. “During your work week, break up chair time by staying in motion whenever possible. Stand up while you’re talking on the phone, go for a walk during lunchtime, and take a five-minute standing break for every hour that you sit down.

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“If you know that you’re going to be seated for long periods, like at a conference, wear loose-fitting clothing that allows blood to circulate, and stay hydrated by drinking water, to help thin the blood,” says Dr. Okoye.

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At home, dance while you’re cooking or cleaning the house, and go for a walk with your children at the end of the day when all the family is home. When you’re out shopping, park further away from wherever you’re going and walk the rest of the way. Take the stairs instead of lifts or escalators – or at least walk up the escalator. Every minute of physical activity counts.

While there’s room for sitting in our day, the bottom line is that we need to give serious thought to how we transform our sitting choices from habitual to intentional. “Make it a daily habit to move more,” says Dr. Okoye. “The less you keep your body in a static position throughout the day, the better your chances for living a healthy life.”

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