Man hunched over computer with text overlay: Is Sitting the New Smoking? The Impact of Prolonged Sitting on Our Health

Is Sitting the New Smoking? The Impact of Prolonged Sitting on Our Health

Have you heard the saying that “sitting is the new smoking”? While that may not be entirely correct (because of their different effects on the body), excessive sitting does have a negative impact on our wellness.

These days, our work has us sitting at the computer for hours on end and when we’re not working, one of our primary sources of entertainment is television. Oh, and let’s not forget our Social Media addiction…

With all this sitting we’re seeing obesity rates climb, diabetes diagnoses rise, and cardiovascular health decline.

The Impacts of Too Much Sitting

When we talk about too much sitting, what are we talking about?

While it’s hard to define too much sitting, what we can define is whether we’re getting enough physical activity, or whether we spend most of our waking hours engaged in sedentary behavior.

Let’s take a look at the definitions for physical inactivity and sedentary behavior:

  • Physical Inactivity – This is “defined as not meeting the [Physical Activity] guidelines of 150 min/wk of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity.” (1)
  • Sedentary behavior – Sedentary behavior is “any waking behavior characterized by an energy expenditure [less than or equal to 1.5 metabolic equivalents]….while in a sitting, reclining or lying posture.” (1)

If we’re spending a lot of time sitting, there’s a good chance we’re not meeting the physical activity guidelines, and of course, sitting definitely meets the definition of sedentary behavior.

Here’s the scary thing about that:

Physical inactivity is considered the fourth leading cause of death, and it is estimated that 6% of coronary heart disease, 7% of type 2 diabetes, 10% of breast cancer, and 10% of colon cancer are attributed to physical inactivity.

Henschel, Beate, et al

This can be unsettling for many of us. We may have chronic illnesses or pain conditions that keep us from meeting that 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity of exercise recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services (2).

We’ll talk about the good news about that in just a minute, but first, let’s take a look at a few ways too much sitting can impact us.

Cardiovascular Disease

As we mentioned above, one major risk of sitting too much is cardiovascular disease. This includes higher total cholesterol and high triglycerides. In addition, people who sit for more than 10 hours a day are more likely to have high blood pressure.

Diabetes

The link between sitting and a higher risk of diabetes is well-established. Using our muscles increases insulin sensitivity, and sitting for prolonged periods tends to decrease it. (5)

Cancer

There seems to be a link between some cancers and inactivity. This is especially true for breast and colon cancer.

Hip/Back Pain

When we remain in a seated position for a long time, we can create muscle imbalances in the hips. Over time, our hip flexors may shorten, which can change the way our hip joints move. In addition to this, our gluteal (butt) muscles can weaken, causing our lower back muscles to do work they’re not designed to do. This just sets us up for injury to our lower back. (3)

Varicose Veins or Spider Veins

Because prolonged sitting can cause blood to pool in our legs, we may be more susceptible to varicose veins or spider veins.

Anxiety and Depression

Although we don’t yet know much about the link between sitting and mental health, we do know that the risk of both anxiety and depression is higher in people that sit more. (4)

Stiff Neck and Shoulders

As my fellow bloggers can probably attest, sitting at the computer for long periods of time can really take a toll on our neck and shoulders. Often we forget about our posture and crane our necks to see our screens, which can cause more of those muscle imbalances we were talking about earlier.

Now For the Good News…

It can be a little discouraging to hear all these negative effects of sitting and know that our jobs or health issues don’t give us much choice. There’s good news though: taking breaks in our sitting can help mitigate those negative effects.

Even if we’re not getting the recommended 150 – 300 minutes of physical activity per week, if we’re breaking up our bouts of prolonged sitting, we can still reduce the negative effects.

In a couple of different studies, breaks in sitting were enough to have a positive impact on several different biometric markers. This seems to indicate that “breaking up prolonged periods of sedentary behavior with short bouts of activity may counteract some of the ill effects of high amounts of sitting time.” (1)

Ways to Break Up Our Sitting Time

Sometimes we think we have to get moving for a large chunk of time in order to see benefits, but as we talked about in 21 Small Ways to Move More, there are lots of little things we can do to get a little more movement into our lives and improve our wellness.

In addition to moving more in general, here are some ways we can break up our sitting time:

  • Set a timer for every 30 minutes. Make it a goal to get up every 30 minutes and move around a little. Small amounts of time add up. Think about it this way: If we’re awake for, say, 15 hours a day, if we just move around for 2 minutes every 30 minutes, that’s 30 minutes of movement each day.
  • Do part of your work standing up. Prolonged standing in one place has its own set of issues, but standing for a few minutes at a time can help us expend more energy and prevent the muscle shortening we talked about above.
  • Walk around when you’re talking on the phone. Rather than sitting while we’re talking to friends and family, we can get a few minutes of movement in.
  • Use TV commercial time to stretch or do an easy exercise, such as bodyweight squats, etc. The main goal is just to get up off the sofa. Whatever helps us do that is great.
  • Take a dance break every once in a while. Putting on our favorite song and dancing around is a great option for breaking up the day. We can get some exercise and have fun.
  • Move around in your chair. Even if we can’t get up out of our chairs, we can move around, change positions, and even do some seated exercises. The main thing is to move.

These are just a few ideas to help us break up that sitting time. As with all other wellness changes, we need to increase our activity slowly over time.

We still need more research to understand how our more sedentary lifestyles affect us. Our bodies are wonderfully made, and we may never understand everything that goes on at a cellular level. What we do know is that there are things we can do to help them function at their best.

We also know what not to do, such as sitting too much. While sitting may not exactly be the new smoking, it can negatively impact our health.

I know I need to work on this. How about you?

What are some of the ways you break up your sitting? Please share!

Blessings,

~Terri

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Man hunched over in front of computer with text overlay: Is Sitting the New Smoking? The Impact of Prolonged Sitting on Our Health

Sources:

(1) Henschel, Beate et al. “Time Spent Sitting as an Independent Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease.” American journal of lifestyle medicine vol. 14,2 204-215. 1 Sep. 2017, doi:10.1177/1559827617728482

(2) https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/be-active/physical-activity-guidelines-for-americans/index.html

(3) https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/certified/january-2020/7443/anti-sitting-strategies-for-your-clients/

(4) https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/the-dangers-of-sitting

(5) http://www.diabetesforecast.org/2017/nov-dec/the-surprising-effects-of-too.html

11 comments

  1. This really made me stop and think! I’ve been doing a lot more sitting recently. I like the idea of setting a timer every 30 minutes. I’m going to start doing that. Thanks for the motivation to get moving!!

    1. I’m glad you like the timer idea Michelle. I used to rely on my Fit Bit to remind me every 50 minutes, but the ‘magic number’ seems to be every 30, so I’m just going to start setting a timer to make sure I get up and move around. Blessings to you sweet friend!

    1. Thanks so much Bar! With so many of us working from home, and when we’re not working, still not leaving the house as much, it’s easy to become sedentary if we’re not careful. Hope you’re doing well sweet friend. Sending hugs!

  2. At least there is no second hand sitting! As a paraplegic I sit full time. A couple of things I’ve learned is that I have to do weight shifts as often as every 18 minutes, and I need to stretch. I try to stay active, which has been hard in our now 17 weeks of isolation. Light weights, resistance bands, yoga poses on the bed (or mat if I’m having a good day). Having said all that, I’m headed over to make a second cup of coffee. 😎👨🏼‍🦽

    1. Thanks so much for sharing George! It’s really good to have your perspective since you do, as you said, sit full time. It sounds like you’ve found what works to help you stay active and make yourself as comfortable as possible. I’m finding the same thing with staying active – I’m having a harder time now that we’re staying home most of the time. I hope you and Sandy are staying well. Enjoy that second cup of coffee, my friend!

  3. “Is sitting the new smoking?” — Wow, just the thought of that question alone should be alarming! It really gets us to thinking about how much of our day is spent in a chair!

    As I was reading your article, I kept nodding my head in agreement with what you’ve written. Hip/back pain, Stiff Neck & Shoulders, Anxiety & Depression — these are the big ones I can relate to when I’ve been too sedentary throughout my day. I believe in having those ‘lazy days,’ but we can really feel it when the lazy has lingered, can’t we? 😀

    I love your tips about setting a timer to get up & walk around. This is a great idea! I’ve found it to be very helpful as well. Even if it’s just to grab more water from the kitchen or throw some laundry in, it adds up! Pacing around the house or yard while talking on the phone is another great one. 🙂 They all are!

    Thanks for sharing this, Terri. I’ve shared it on all of my social media as well. ♥ I even added a link to this post into my latest blog post about 4 ways to becoming a fitter & healthier you. Awesome work, as always. I love reading your thoughts!

    1. Thank you so much Holly! I really appreciate you sharing this. I’m with you in believing that we need some days to just relax, but like you, I can relate to the aches and pains when I’ve relaxed for a little too long. The best thing I did for myself where my chronic pain is concerned is to start moving more. It’s so hard at first, but I found that starting out really slow and easy and building on that made a huge difference in the way I feel day-to-day. Thanks again sweet friend. Sending hugs your way!

  4. Great post Terri! As you know I have been going great with my 150 mins of activity per week until…..an FM flare hit… thus in the last few weeks, I’m really struggling again + it’s freezing here in our Aussie winter!
    Both not conducive for outdoor activity that I was once doing.
    But your suggestions above are encouraging,
    Bless you,
    Jennifer

    1. Thanks so much Jennifer! I’m so sorry to hear you’ve been slowed down by your flare and the weather. You know, sometimes these things happen and we just have to adjust what we’re doing to what we’re able to. We also have to avoid “beating ourselves up” when we can’t do those things we normally do. I’m experiencing something similar now with my foot injury. It’s times like this that make me wish I had a pool.😊 I hope your flare lifts soon sweet friend. Blessings to you!

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