Sitting is the new smoking


Are you seated as you read this article? How long have you been sitting? Have you taken a break and stepped out? Have you stood up and stretched?

If you haven’t, put this article down, stand up and walk around your room, up and down the stairs or in your garden as briskly as you can for three to five minutes. Then, clasp your hands and stretch them high above your head. Push your clasped hands back as far as possible feeling the stretch in your chest, particularly at the point where your arms meet the chest. Go up on your toes and reach for the ceiling. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

There’s something about movement that makes one ‘feel’ better… more invigorated.

Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.
– Dr David Levine — Mayo Clinic — Obesity Prevention Initiative.

This is a relatively new theory but one that has withstood research. Several studies have shown the importance of ‘not sitting’ for prolonged periods of time.

  • Risk of cancers like colon, breast and uterus were found to be increased in a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
  • Risk of heart disease increased in those individuals who sat more than six hours a day. They died earlier than their counterparts who sat for less than three hours a day. Something as simple as ‘not sitting for long periods of time’ appears to increase longevity. In another study men who spent six hours or more a day sitting, had an increased death rate, about 20 per cent more than those who sat less than three hours a day.
  • The risk of obesity goes up several times when seated for prolonged periods of time.
  • Risk of diabetes is increased with prolonged sitting in a day — the sensitivity of insulin, the hormone that controls your blood sugar, is decreased with continuous sitting. A study, in the journal Diabetologia, found that out of 80,000 participants, those who sat the most were twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.
  • Sitting interferes with Lipo Protein Lipase (LPL), an enzyme that breaks down our fat. LPL activity is directly related to movement; lying down and sitting still drops levels of LPL to an abysmal low and leads to accumulation of fat.
  • Depression — those who sat for more than 7 hours a day had a 47 per cent higher chance of developing depression.
  • The very act of moving increases the endorphines in the brain and makes one feel better.

The truth is,  however good  your chair, it  is killing you!

The seated position

  • The seated position itself is such that it decreases not only the blood flow to the lower limbs but also the neuromuscular stimulation to the leg muscles, causing them to literally go dead.
  • When continued through life, prolonged sitting causes poor mobility and balance, increasing incidence of falls that we see so often in older people.
  • The position of sitting, especially in our modern chairs, the 90 degree or more flexion at the hip and knee joints, encourages deep vein thrombosis, or clotting of blood in the veins of the lower limbs, as a result of prolonged immobility.
  • —This is irrelevant of great sitting posture. Even if you have your back aligned perfectly, shoulders dropped, core tightened and so on, this still doesn’t help the blood flow to the legs. Good posture may protect your back, but will not circumvent the other negative effects of prolonged sitting.

Your chair

It was only in the 18th century that the ‘chair’ made its appearance. Prior to that we managed with perhaps stools and benches, which frankly don’t encourage sitting for long, as the lack of the backrest will prevent you from even wanting to do so. Nowadays, however, companies vie with each other to make a more comfortable chair than ever before. You have chairs for bad backs, chairs that rotate, slide, swing, massage you, have great quality foam, arm rests, and other features, making it very difficult to get off your back and move once you are seated. The truth is, however good your chair, it is killing you!

In 1992, Dr Levine asked the question: Why do some people not gain weight even when they eat more, and don’t exercise? He then went on to perform an experiment where a group of people were given 1,000 calories a day over their usual diet and were told not to exercise but to continue with their routine work. They were observed for two months.

Some gained weight as expected, while others didn’t. What was the difference? Those who didn’t put on weight, moved more — not exercised, but just moved more. Their bodies inherently understood that they were consuming more than required and to compensate, they just moved more at work and at home. They may have climbed more stairs, stood instead of staying seated, done more housework, and so on.

Just moving increases productivity; improves creativity; ushers in more innovation, improved memory and a better mood.

The very act of moving increases the endorphins in the brain and makes one feel better.

NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) is the calories burnt from activities other than structured exercise, which we commonly disregard. NEAT can be increased by fidgeting; moving more; taking the stairs; moving the limbs as much as possible; standing instead of sitting; and doing simple things around the house such as laundry and cleaning.

TV & computer: malaise of the modern world

In a study done in Australia, for every increased hour of television or internet, the risk of dying rose by 11 per cent. Watching a lot of TV causes depression. This, I believe, is partly due to the sitting and perhaps partly the result of the kind of channels you watch!

So, what do you do? Small changes.

  • —Stand up when you watch TV. At least stand 50 per cent of the time, or better still, watch less TV!
  • Watch the news on your treadmill or stationary bike
  • Walk around at every commercial break. There are lots of them. You are missing nothing if you take a walk down the hall during a commercial break
  • Do squats, calf raises or ab crunches during commercial breaks
  • Don’t eat sitting in front of the TV
  • Use a standing desk
  • Move every 30 minutes
  • Slip off the shoes and move your feet and toes
  • Stand up every time someone comes in to see you
  • Stand up every time you answer the phone
  • Stand up and talk
  • Walk the stairs
  • Exercise at your desk

The minimum exercise requirement a day as per WHO recommendation is 150 minutes of accumulated exercise a week. An hour or two of ‘exercise’ does not entitle one to a sedentary lifestyle for the rest of the day. Prolonged physical inertia is not negated with exercise!

Runners are as susceptible to the setbacks of prolonged sitting as much as obese people who don’t exercise. For instance, if you complete your one hour run and then go to your work place and sit for the next eight hours, you are at as much of a risk of developing the problems previously listed as someone who is overweight and not exercising regularly. The hour of exercise does not negate the ill-effects of sitting.

This is why sitting is compared to smoking. Smoking a pack a day and then exercising for an hour will not contradict the detrimental effects of smoking just as an hour of exercise cannot compensate for an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.

The author, an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, is a Fitness & Lifestyle Consultant, and has published two books: Get Size Wise; Gain to Lose.

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