Right off the bat let me say that I can’t take credit for this title. It’s been all over the news, which makes me exceedingly happy for two reasons: it’s a fantastic headline, and it’s becoming mainstream (not just for the health nerds anymore!).
I had to steal the title because, the truth is, sitting IS the new smoking. It’s so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even think about it. If you went to a work meeting or a party and you chose to stand instead of sit, it would be weird, people would notice. I know because I do this quite often, and it really freaks people out. Sixty years ago, if you were at a meeting or a party and chose not to smoke, it would be weird, people would notice. I know because I’ve watched Mad Men, and it really freaks me out. (Seriously, have you SEEN how much they smoke? And drink. And cheat on their wives. The whole thing is out of control.)
But seriously, at one time, smoking was acceptable, popular even. People smoked everywhere, and it was normal. If you weren’t smoking, someone would politely offer you a cigarette just like today, if you aren’t sitting, someone will politely offer you a chair. Smoking was a national health crisis, only they didn’t realize it. The new national health crisis is the number of hours we sit each day: in the car, at work, on the couch, at mealtime.
Sitting for the bulk of our day causes the muscles of the legs to become very short and tight. This causes poor circulation (cold, numb, or swollen feet, anyone?), decreased space in the joints (=friction=pain), sciatica and lower metabolism. This tension pulls the pelvis out of alignment, and since the pelvis is the base for the spine, the spine also gets pulled out of alignment causing things like herniated discs, nerve impingement and generalized neck/back pain. When muscles are tight and inactive, they aren’t pulling as much blood into the smaller blood vessels as they normally would. This increases the pressure in the larger vessels, making it harder for the heart to work and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
If you think about our history, this excessive sitting is a relatively recent phenomena. A few hundred years ago people had jobs that kept them moving throughout the day. If they wanted to go visit a friend, they walked or maybe rode a horse. They didn’t have desk jobs or cars that kept them sitting for hours on end. Sure, they had chairs, but they used them far less than we do today.
As obesity, heart disease, cancer and other diseases of affluence became more widespread, we realized this was due to the fact that we were sedentary, which was true. So we invented exercise to make up for our lack of movement during the day. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but today we see these diseases are still on the rise. Exercise hasn’t solved the problem.
The AARP put out an article last year titled “Sitting: Hazardous to Your Health” where they tell us:
“Mounting evidence suggests that sitting for long periods increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer and early death, even for people who exercise daily.”
Did you catch that? The more you sit, the higher your risk for disease and early death, even if you regularly exercise. The new research shows that the best thing you can do for your health isn’t to exercise more, it’s to sit less. This is hard for a lot of us to hear, because we have been talking about the importance of exercise for the last 40 years. What scientists now understand is that going to the gym for one hour a day doesn’t undo the damage of sitting for 8+ hours a day. Avid exercisers and couch potatoes are dying from the same illnesses. Fitness activities are fun and have their place, but what the human body really needs for disease prevention is regular movement throughout the day.
Here is the fun part! Take this “How Much Do I Sit?” Quiz and read the suggestions at the very end for ways you can start incorporating more movement into you day.
Coming Next: How to transition to a standing work station.