Career Woman

Sitting is the new smoking – What to do about it


This guide outlines why sitting is the new smoking, and what you can do to counteract its detrimental impact on your health.

With so much going for being physically active, the paradox is that for a number of reasons we have become increasingly sedentary. This comes at a terrible cost: for 2013 this was estimated at INT$54 billion in direct costs (2013) plus $14 billion in indirect costs. According to a report in The Lancet, physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for death in the world, hence the catchcry and claim that sitting is the new smoking.

Over the past few years, several other studies have shown that working in a sitting position (or spending a great deal of time in that position) can cause as much harm to your health as smoking. The longer a person sits, the more likely they are to develop chronic problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in addition to other adverse health conditions. This includes a greater chance of dying prematurely, even if you are in the habit of exercising regularly.

That’s why many companies and health plan operators are focusing on actions to prevent these problems among their employees and beneficiaries. We will show below some strategies that you can also adopt in your company, in order to rationalize healthcare costs, improve the quality of life and reduce absenteeism.

Sitting is the new smoking: overview

Medical research around this topic continues to advance. One study by swedish researchers published in 2014 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that when a person sits all day, it ends up shortening their telomeres (small structures that protect the ends of the DNA strands).

As the telomeres get smaller, the rate of wear of the cells increases and, consequently, of the aging. According to the researchers, those who spend less time sitting not only have this process interrupted, but in some cases the telomeres end up getting even longer.

Working sitting down is fattening and bad for the heart

Other research suggests that sugar and fat are metabolized differently when sitting down. And that’s exactly what increases the risk of developing diabetes, obesity or heart problems, such that sitting is the new smoking in terms of health damage.

Remaining seated for prolonged periods induces biochemical changes in the activity of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. Its function is usually to help muscles remove fat from the bloodstream. But when we sit for a long time, this enzyme simply “turns off”. This causes the fat in the blood to accumulate all over certain parts of the body that tend to form deposits. In other words: more fat and less muscle .

Plus, you burn 30% more calories when you’re standing than when you’re sitting. If you add up the days, months, and years that the person has been sitting, it is possible to imagine how many extra pounds he has accumulated as a result. Which invariably leads to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases.

The ergonomic risks of working seated

Anyone who has spent a long period of time in this position has realized that working in a sitting position causes leg pain, back pain, and other types of postural discomfort. This is because when we sit, we often tend to lean forward, which ultimately results in inappropriate spinal curvature. This happens especially in office workers, for example.

Sitting still puts uneven pressure on some parts of the body, straining the spine, muscles and joints. Also, because the person is bent over, the lungs have less room to expand. This limits breathing, reducing the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream. This includes a reduction in the levels of brain irrigation, an essential condition for maintaining concentration and productivity at work. This explains why the individual becomes less and less productive when working sitting down for a long period of time.

Another problem occurs because, when we sit, we end up compressing some tissue in the buttocks and thighs. Sitting for a long time cuts circulation to these areas, causing swelling in the lower extremities of the body.

So does it mean that those who work sitting down live less? That’s right! At least that’s what it points to in a study developed by researchers who compiled World Health Organization articles and surveys on average length of sitting in 54 countries and linked these data to a meta-analysis published in the journal PLoS ONE.

As a result, it was concluded that up to 4% of all deaths in the world (ie: around 433,000 deaths per year) could be avoided if people sat down for three hours.

According to Leandro Rezende, from the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine at USP and one of the authors of the study, sitting down for four hours a day increases the risk of death by 2%. If it’s five hours a day, this risk rises to 4%. With six hours of sitting, the risk is 6%, and with seven hours, 8%. Thereafter, the risk increases considerably: with eight hours a day it is 13% and with nine hours it reaches a staggering 18% !

The thing to remember is that a single session of exercise cannot make up for the negative effects of sitting on our bottom all day. Seeking out opportunities to move more and sit less is the way to go.

How long do you think you sit for each day? This should include the time spent eating, commuting, at work and relaxing. Many of us spend more time sitting on our backside than we do lying in our beds. The average person sits for 62 per cent of their day. Our sedentary lifestyle is killing us.

Sitting is the new smoking: the solution

Sorry to be blunt. But the solution is simple. Make the choice to stand up and move around more across your day. Note to the exercise-phobe and activity intolerant: This is not about Activewear or Spanx undergarments, or training for the next Olympics, merely about getting up out of your chair and moving, because:

We think better on our feet

Anti-sedentary campaigns now encourage us to think before we sit. The 2015 consensus statement commissioned and released by Public Health England and the Active Working Community Interest Company aimed to provide guidance for office workers to combat the problems of sedentary work by encouraging individuals to move towards two hours a day of standing and light activity (walking), progressing to four hours a day. The Get Britain Standing organisation is spreading the word to help us make the better choice by providing evidence that sitting for eight hours a day:

  • raises your risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes by 40 per cent
  • increases your risk of a fatal heart attack by 64 per cent
  • slows your rate of metabolism dramatically.

Tips to reduce your sitting time

  • Stand while enjoying a coffee break or eating your lunch.
  • Get out for a stroll, run or jog during your lunchbreak.
  • Stand when making or taking a phone call.
  • Choose to stand on the bus, train or ferry on your commute.
  • Include more time standing, walking or cycling during your commute.
  • Take the stairs rather than the lift or do a combo. Walking down stairs is just as good as walking up.
  • Use a variable-height desk (with a comfort mat to reduce fatigue from standing).
  • Try a wobble/balance board while working at your variable-height desk.
  • Try a treadmill desk.
  • Use active seating.
  • Walk to your colleague’s office for a face-to-face conversation rather than sending an email or text message.
  • Get up at regular intervals through your day for a stretch or a walk. Set a timer on your phone if necessary.
  • Hold standing or walking meetings.

Maybe you’ve noticed how much better you feel when you’ve spent more time on your feet during the day. It’s disappointing to hear stories of employees being told the only way they can get a variable-height desk is if they have a note from their doctor saying they have a back problem that requires it. Isn’t prevention a better, more cost-effective solution?

If your boss is yet to be convinced, they might be interested to know that having the opportunity to stand more across our working day has been associated with reports of a 71 per cent increase in focus, a 66 per cent increase in productivity, and 33 per cent less stress and fatigue. Feeling good, more alert and getting more done has to be a good outcome, right?

Edited extract from Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) by Dr Jenny Brockis. Now available at all good bookstores and online at

About Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is the author of Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life.

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