Sitting Is The New Smoking

“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.” Dr James Levine

When you’re going along in life thinking, yep, I’m pretty healthy and active, I get some exercise every day. Pat-on-the-back stuff, I’m doing better than most which must be good.

Then you have a conversation with someone who’s on a whole other level.  They might as well be on a different planet. They make you see what an active human actually looks like. Your hitherto ‘active’ lifestyle  is well and truly reframed and you realise you’re more akin to a sloth than an active, healthy human.   

This was me last week. My coaching session for the month focused on breath-body practices, one of the 10 core habits that humans need to thrive. I’ve been working these habits this past year, and boy is there depth to them. As you work on a simple enough habit like exercising you realise there’s always another refinement available, another step to take to feel even better. Evolution is like that I guess, it’s a constantly moving game.

I exercise every morning, this is the part of this habit that I’ve embedded this year. So I figured I was doing pretty good. Until my coach talked about her daily activity, which involves not just a daily workout of some sort, but a good 8 mile walk thanks to having a treadmill desk. If she’s not on a treadmill then she’s at a standing desk. All day.

It dawned on me how much of each day I spend sitting on my arse.  Pretty much all of it, apart from the 30-90 minutes I exercise.

The most recent health mantra – ‘sitting is the new smoking’ – has also been floating around in my head this week.

Is sitting really as bad as smoking?

A study from the American Heart Association ( http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/134/13/e262) seems to think that there’s mounting evidence to indicate that greater time spent sedentary (basically sitting) is associated with cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in adults.

Other studies have shown a link between sedentary behaviour and an increase in the risk of certain types of cancer. ( http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/106/7/dju206.full) .

What’s interesting is that this negative effect seems to be independent of physical activity, suggesting that even those who are quite active in some respects, i.e. workout regularly, aren’t immune if they still spend large parts of the day sitting.  Carving out a few times a week, or even once a day, to be physically active isn’t enough. Or rather, there is waaaaaay more we could be doing for our health.

So why is sitting so bad?

A study (http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/172/4/419.abstract) published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that men and women who sat more than six hours a day died earlier than their counterparts who limited sitting time to 3 hours a day or less. The study surveyed 53,440 men and 69,776 women who were healthy at the start of the study and over the course of the 14-year follow-up they saw a higher rate of mortality among the frequent sitters. Associations were strongest for cardiovascular disease mortality.

The plot thickens as sitting for long periods also affects blood sugar levels and insulin in the body, making sedentary people more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. A study published in Diabetologia (http://www.diabetologia-journal.org/files/henson.pdf) looks at the results of 18 studies with nearly 800,000 participants and concluded that the people sitting for the longest periods of time where twice as likely to develop diabetes as the people sitting the least amount.

It’s also pretty bad for our muscles. It leads to deconditioning. Our muscles want to be used. They’re healthier when they are being used in different ways frequently.  When we sit all day, day after day, week after week, and year after year, we become weaker.

 

Sit Less Stand More

Standing a little more each day tones muscles, improves posture, increases blood flow, ramps up metabolism, and burns extra calories.

A neat exercise to do when you need to tackle a new challenge in your life is to turn the challenge (a sedentary lifestyle) into a question – ‘How can I spend less time sitting?’. Write out numbers 1-10 and then let the answers free flow from your brain. When you’re done with your 10 answers select the best ones to action.

I did this little exercise and came up with some pretty good adjustments to action right away.

I took a cardboard box home from work and popped it on my dinning room table to create an instant and temporary stand up desk. I’m at home three days a week so that’s three days a week I’m going to spend some time standing at my laptop where before I would have sat.

I finally took my ipod to the mac store to get the battery fixed so that I can load it up with all the audio from my course that I need to digest and hit the outdoors for some walking learning.

Incidentally, when I was at the mac store I had another realisation on this topic.  When they guided me to the waiting table and chairs I noticed how I automatically parked my arse on the chair, just because it was there.  Habituated sitting!  Given my awakening awareness around this pattern I stood up again and waited standing.

There’s always a small action step we can take in a better direction.  

How can you bring a little more movement into your day?

Author: Sam Vale Noya

Yoga instructor currently living and teaching in Reading, UK.