Is Sitting the New Smoking?
Sedentary lifestyle habits are currently being associated with the risk of diseases. Such a lifestyle trend is particularly worrisome as sitting for long hours can have deleterious effects on physical and mental health. Is sitting for a long time as harmful as smoking? Can exercise and physical activity negate the dangers of sitting? Read on to know!
Population-based studies have suggested that more than half of an average person’s waking day comprises of sedentary activities. These include prolonged hours of watching television, use of modern day amenities such as the desktop, laptop or mobile phones. These days, Indians are sitting an average of 8.1 hours a day and sleeping an average of 8 hours resulting in a sedentary lifestyle of around 16 hours a day. And guess what—that may be killing you because sitting for a long time is harmful.
According to Dr. James Levine, MD, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative (and inventor of the treadmill desk), “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”
The car-commuting, desk-bound, TV-watching lifestyle has become harmful to such an extent where experts have labelled this modern-day health epidemic as the “sitting disease.”
Can Exercise Reverse The Effects of Prolonged sitting?
Physical activities are very much essential for healthy well-being. It keeps the body and the mind active and alert. But if you are like most software developers, school bus drivers, accountants, insurance sales agents or lawyers, you tend to sit for at least 8-10 hours a day (or night). Studies suggest that a couple of hours of exercises cannot eradicate the effects of prolonged sitting.
Professor Marc Hamilton, PhD from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center tells Men’s Health, “The cure for too much sitting isn’t more exercise. Exercise is good, of course, but the average person could never do enough to counteract the effect of hours and hours of chair time.”
This is an important observation because it suggests that occasional leisure time physical activity even if the amount exceeds the current minimum physical activity recommendations cannot compensate for the effects of prolonged sitting.
Let’s have a look at the major dangers of sitting for a prolonged period.
Obesity and Sitting
Prospective studies report associations between time spent sitting and obesity risk. Obesity is an established risk factor for several major chronic conditions, including cardiovascular and metabolic outcomes and certain cancers.
A study published in Diabetologia, August 2015 by James A. Levine mentions that people with obesity tend to sit for 2¼ hours per day more than lean people with similar professions, economic statuses and home environments. People with obesity tend to sit; walkers tend to be leaner.
Back, Neck, & Sciatica Pain From Sitting
One of the most common dangers of sitting for long periods is pain in lower back or neck pain. This makes it difficult for many people to work comfortably at work. Idle time invokes pain that radiates along the sciatic nerve, which branches from the lower back through hips and buttocks and down each leg creating much discomfort.
The workspaces can be ergonomically re-designed to overcome posture related issues. It should encourage a well-aligned posture and unrestricted movements.
Cancer and Excessive Sitting
One of the unexpected dangers of sitting for long periods of time is Cancer. Researchers from the American Cancer Society, Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort (2015) have found that women who spend 6 hours or more of leisure sitting per day have a 10% greater risk of getting certain types of cancer (multiple myeloma, ovarian cancer, and invasive breast cancer) than women who spend less than 3 hours of leisure sitting per day.
Another journal published in Plos One, September 26, 2013, reveals that there is fairly consistent evidence that sedentary behaviour and sedentary occupations can lead to a higher risk of some cancers (e.g., colorectal, ovarian, prostate, endometrial). Nonetheless, the findings also concluded that sedentary behaviour increases the risk of cancer-related deaths in women.
Cardiovascular Disease and Excessive Sitting
The results of the study published by Pennington Biomedical Research Center Baton Rouge, LA (2014) and Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, Ottawa suggest that higher the daily time spent sitting in major activities higher is the risk of mortality from cardiovascular diseases (CVD).
A prospective study enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative (2014) reported that women who spent 16 or more hours per day sitting had an elevated risk for incident CVD compared with women who spent less than 4 hours sitting.
Another analysis of women reported that those who spent less than half of their time sitting had a lower risk of CVD mortalities compared with those who spent more than half of their day sitting.
Type 2 Diabetes and Sitting
Sitting for a long time is harmful as it results in little muscle use and thus, little energy burn. As a result, the metabolic pathways regulating the storage of blood sugars are less active and effective. As a result, the sugar level tends to increase in the blood. Over time, this can contribute to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The Nurses’ Health Study conducted in Germany (surveyed during 1984-95 and follow-up in 1998), reported that a high leisure-time physical activity level could lead to a reduced risk of incident type 2 diabetes, among both men and women.
Call of the Hour
Follow these below-mentioned tips to reduce your sitting time and avoid the dangers of sitting:
- While watching TV, stand up and move about during commercial breaks
- Walk when you talk on your mobile phone
- Remind yourself to get up and move once an hour while on your phone or computer
- Avoid eating lunch at your desk, move to another location or go for a walk after meals
- Avoid sitting on public transport and get off one stop early to reach your destination by foot
- Park your car at a 5-10 min walk away from your destination
- Avoid emailing your colleague at work, walk over to them and tell them in person
- Convert seated meetings into standing ones
- Adjust the height of your desk/computer, if possible, so you can sometimes stand while working
- Set screen time limits
- Participate in active play with family and friends by going to the park or walking the dog
- Stand and fold laundry
- Do a few simple exercises or stretches while you watch TV
- Take short breaks at work to explore your office building
- Avoid the elevator to use the stairs instead
- Use the farthest bathroom from your desk at work
- Go out on evening walks
- Avoid using transport facilities while travelling short distances
A healthy and active lifestyle never goes out of fashion. People are designed to be bipedal since the beginning of civilization. Before being struck by the huge wave of industrialization, people moved substantially more throughout the day than they do now. Sitting for a long time is harmful and deliberate efforts must be made to incorporate physical activities in the daily routine. The work environment, cityscapes and communities can be re-imagined and re-invented as walking spaces. This would offer a healthier, happier, active and more productive lifestyle to fight the dangers of sitting.
The American Cancer Society recommends that adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week (or a combination), preferably spread throughout the week. For kids, the recommendation is at least 60 minutes of moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity each day, with vigorous-intensity activity occurring at least 3 days each week.
In addition to meeting the physical activity guidelines, sedentary activities must be put on a check. Long periods of idle time must be interrupted. You can use fitness trackers and health monitoring apps to recognise various daily sedentary activities to curb the sitting disease.