Is Sitting the New Smoking?

In recent years, the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” has gained popularity, suggesting that the health risks associated with prolonged sitting are comparable to those of smoking. While it is true that a sedentary lifestyle can have negative impacts on health, smoking and sitting are fundamentally not the same, and their risk profiles are very different.

Sitting and smoking are fundamentally different as sitting is a natural human activity, whereas smoking is an unhealthy activity by definition. However, we shouldn’t take this information to mean that sitting 8-10 hours per day is just fine, as the negative health effects of a sedentary lifestyle are well documented.

In this article, we will explore the origins of the phrase, discuss why sitting and smoking are not equivalent, provide the truth about the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, and provide some practical suggestions to break up prolonged periods of sitting.

The origins of the phrase

The phrase “sitting is the new smoking” was coined to emphasize the potential health risks of a sedentary lifestyle. It gained traction as researchers and health professionals began to highlight the adverse effects of spending long hours sitting at desks, in front of screens, or during commutes.

The problem is that the assumption by the layperson is that the phrase suggests that sitting is as bad as smoking, or perhaps it’s worse.

It’s important to recognize that the comparison to smoking is a metaphorical expression rather than a direct equivalence.

The truth about sitting

Rather than appealing to emotion by equating the two, we believe it’s appropriate to take an honest appraisal of the effects our sedentary behavior has on our lives. For instance, is it true that sitting is bad, or is it simply the case the being sedentary leads to negative health outcomes?

It’s unrealistic to ask a modern human not to sit, whereas not smoking is always a good idea. Not only that, avoiding sitting altogether isn’t something that would likely help us very much, unless it was coupled with other lifestyle changes.

We can apply some common sense and look at the health outcomes of a sedentary lifestyle, and follow simple guidelines to improve our health overall.

Let’s briefly examine the negative health effects of a sedentary lifestyle:

The Health Effects of Sedentary Lifestyle:

Beyond the catchy comparison to smoking, it’s essential to delve into the actual health effects associated with a sedentary lifestyle. While sitting itself is not inherently harmful, prolonged periods of inactivity can contribute to various health concerns:

Cardiovascular risks

Extended sitting has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. A sedentary lifestyle may lead to increased blood pressure and compromised heart health.

Musculoskeletal issues

Being sedentary can contribute to musculoskeletal problems, including back pain, neck pain, and stiffness.

Metabolic impact

Sedentary behavior is associated with metabolic disturbances, such as insulin resistance and impaired glucose metabolism.

Obesity risk

Lack of physical activity is a key factor in the development of obesity. Sedentary lifestyles contribute to an imbalance between calorie intake and expenditure, leading to weight gain.

Mental health implications

Being sedentary has been linked to mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Regular physical activity is known to have positive effects on mood and cognitive function.

Reduced lifespan

Numerous studies suggest that a sedentary lifestyle is associated with a higher risk of premature death. Lack of physical activity can contribute to overall poor health and increase susceptibility to various diseases.

Circulatory issues

Sitting for long periods can impede blood circulation, leading to issues such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Physical inactivity may contribute to the formation of blood clots.

Impact on bone health

Weight-bearing activities, such as standing and walking, are crucial for maintaining bone density. Prolonged sitting may contribute to decreased bone density and an increased risk of fractures.

Why sitting and smoking are truly not comparable

The health risks associated with smoking are well-established and severe, leading to a myriad of life-threatening conditions. Sedentary behavior, while linked to increased risks of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and other health issues, does not carry the same level of inherent danger as smoking.

Additionally, drawing an analogy between smoking and sitting has led to problems with public health messaging:

In a 2018 paper, Vallance et al discuss the frenzy of media attention that the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” has garnered since 2010, noting that equating sitting to smoking may lead to misguided public health messages, potentially diverting attention from the urgency of addressing smoking-related issues.

They also point out that some media outlets have even inferred or stated that sitting is worse than smoking, which simply isn’t true.

Understanding the differences

Nature of the Behavior

Smoking involves the inhalation of harmful substances, leading to a range of serious health conditions such as lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory issues. Sitting, on the other hand, is a natural and necessary human activity.

This highlights the first major difference: smoking is never necessary, and even smoking a couple of cigarettes per day is associated with higher risk of health issues, whereas sitting isn’t an inherently unhealthy activity.

The problem arises when it becomes prolonged and is not balanced with regular physical activity.

Chemical Exposure

Smoking exposes the body to harmful chemicals present in tobacco smoke, including nicotine and tar.

Sitting does not involve the intake of toxic substances; rather, it contributes to a lack of physical activity, which impacts various aspects of health.

Scope of Impact

Smoking is a direct cause of numerous life-threatening diseases. The CDC reports that smoking is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide.

Sedentary behavior, while associated with health concerns, does not pose the same immediate and severe risks as smoking.

Striking a balance

As we’ve discussed, sitting is not necessarily a “bad” activity. It simply gets overdone as a result of our modern lifestyles.

Consider this: if you assumed any particular position for 8-12 hours per day, it would likely lead to some adaptations in the body that would later need to be corrected for. It just so happens that sitting is the position we’re “overdoing.”

This leads to a couple of issues:

  1. We need to find a way to solve the particular issues that arise as a result of excessive time spent in the seated position, and
  2. Perhaps more importantly, we need to find ways to embrace an active lifestyle in the midst of all the sitting we do.

Understanding the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle emphasizes the importance of striking a balance between sitting and physical activity. Incorporating regular breaks, standing, and engaging in moderate-intensity exercises can mitigate the negative impacts associated with prolonged sitting.

Rather than demonizing sitting, we prefer to promote a holistic approach to health that includes both regular movement and the avoidance of prolonged periods of assuming the same seated position.

By addressing these health effects directly, we can foster a more nuanced conversation about the impact of our modern, often sedentary, lifestyles on overall well-being.

How to break up the day and reduce long stretches of sitting

Reducing sitting time is a great way to sneak exercise into your lifestyle and avoid some of the negative effects associated with sitting in one position for extended periods of time:

Take regular breaks

Set a timer to remind yourself to stand up and move every 30-60 minutes, especially if you have a desk job. Use this time to stretch, walk around, or perform light exercises.

Perform “desk exercises”

We’ve written extensively in the past on how to incorporate quick 3-5 minute exercise sessions into your daily life. These are particularly useful for those of us who sit for a living.

If you’re interested, check out our core micro workout (3 mins), our lower body micro workout (3-4 mins), and our upper body micro workout (3 minutes).

Incorporating simple exercises that can be done at your desk, such as leg lifts, seated marches, desk squats, knee push-ups, or planks.

Stretch at regular intervals

One of the effects of sitting for a prolonged period of time is what’s been termed “adaptive shortening”, where muscles assume a shortened length due to being underused and placed in shortened positions.

One of the greatest ways to counter these effects is to simply stretch them out regularly. This is particularly true of hamstrings and hip flexors, muscle groups that can lead to uncomfortable pain and stiffness in the hips and back when left shortened.

Use a standing desk

Consider using a standing desk to reduce the amount of time spent sitting. Alternating between sitting and standing throughout the day can help alleviate the negative effects of prolonged sitting.

Take walks

If you have phone calls or virtual meetings, consider taking them while walking. This not only reduces sitting time but also adds physical activity to your routine.

Additionally, you could use your lunch break as an opportunity to go for a short walk. This can be a refreshing way to break up the day and add some physical activity.

By making these adjustments and being mindful of your daily habits, you can significantly reduce your sitting time and promote a more active and healthier lifestyle. Remember that small, consistent changes can have a positive impact on your overall well-being over time.

So, is sitting the new smoking?

While we do understand some of the logic behind the analogy, the truth is that: no, sitting is not the new smoking.

However, this knowledge doesn’t give us a pass to blow off critical aspects of our health. We know that a sedentary lifestyle isn’t conducive to health and quality of life over the long term, and we even have very specific data on how much exercise is necessary, with countless ways to slice the physical activity up into manageable chunks.

Additionally, if we find that we’re experiencing some basic trouble as a result of sitting all day at work, in the car, and on the couch, we can engage in some basic flexibility and mobility work to counteract the effect that’s been termed “adaptive shortening” of our muscle bellies.

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