The new smoking?

Is sitting a lot really that bad?

You hear it all the time lately, sitting can make you ill. Some are even calling it ‘the new smoking’. Is that justified?

Text: Elly Posthumus

Do you sit for hours on end every day? That can damage your health. At least that’s what we’ve been hearing and reading in the media these past few years. Apparently sitting too much even substantially increases the odds of dying prematurely. If you have an office job, like so many of us today, that requires you to behind your desk all day every day, then all this bad sitting news probably sounds ominous. But are these reports true?

Uncertainty about sitting

‘We actually don’t know yet whether sitting is that bad for you,’ Mai Chin A Paw stresses. She is professor of public and occupational health at Amsterdam UMC and conducts research on exercising and sitting. ‘There’s no convincing scientific evidence yet about the potentially unhealthy effects of too much sitting. Nor do we know precisely what’s going on in your body that could be having a bad effect on it.’ Scientists have conducted studies on sitting and exercising. Indeed, a number of them have established a link between too much sitting and a range of afflictions. Think, for example, of diabetes and heart disease. Yet a number of other studies have failed to discover these links.

The problem is that when you identify health problems, you can’t determine whether they’ve been caused by the actual sitting or the lack of intense physical activity. Because someone who sits too much could also be doing a lot of sports. Or not. It’s difficult to see sitting and exercising independently of each other. In order to really say something useful about the effect of sitting, you would actually need to impose an exercise and sitting regime on two groups of people for an extended period of time. One group would need to sit a lot and the second group very little. But both groups would need to get the same amount of exercise. You would need to monitor them for years, do health measurements and see what the exact effect of sitting is, independent of moderately intense exercise (in which your heart rate and your breathing increases only a little more than usual, for example while gardening or walking). Performing this kind of research is difficult in practice, however.

There’s little point standing

If sitting is the culprit, then you would expect standing regularly to have a positive effect on your health. After all, standing is different than sitting. But interrupting your sitting every hour by standing doesn’t appear to have much of an impact. Chin A Paw discovered that in her own research. She had young, healthy adults sit for two days. One group interrupted their sitting on the second day by standing for eight minutes every hour. A second group cycled with moderate intensity for eight minutes every hour on that day. The exercise was useful: it improved their sugar metabolism, which reduces the risk of diabetes. But, Chin A Paw says, ‘interrupting sitting with standing was completely pointless.’ What about switching your desk chair every now and then for a standing desk at work? No point in that either, unless you’re doing it for health reasons. That kind of desk could help you if you want to change your posture sometimes, or if you want to walk around a bit more. But don’t stay standing for too long. ‘Standing too much can give you back problems and varicose veins,’ Chin A Paw warns. ‘A desk bike is a much better idea.’ Because you would be exercising. And we know for a fact that that’s good for your body.’

Impossible to compensate?

Many people think that sitting for long periods is so unhealthy that you can’t compensate for the negative effects by doing sports or some other kind of activity. Even the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment states on its website that there are indications that sitting too much can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes and premature death, even if you do enough sports or get enough exercise. People are already using it as an excuse to skip their visits to the gym. What’s the point, if they’re sitting for the rest of the day anyway? ‘That’s a dangerous conclusion,’ Chin A Paw warns. ‘There is no relation whatsoever between sitting and cardiovascular disease, for example, among people who exercise for an average of an hour or more per day. In other words, if you cycle to and from work for an hour every day, at a good pace, and do some sports in the weekend as well, then it makes little difference whether you also sit on your chair eight hours a day. So it looks as if it’s not the sitting that’s affecting people, but rather the lack of exercise. ‘Exercise is always good for everyone,’ Chin A Paw says.

Exercise is medicine

The bad news is that the majority of the population doesn’t get enough exercise, regardless of the age group. It’s not even about doing sports. Our society is designed in such a way that you’re unconsciously enticed to minimise activity as much as possible. Who still walks to the postbox to mail a letter? We just send emails. Most of our devices have remote controls. And if we need to move vertically, we have elevators and escalators.

Standing too much can give you varicose veins

Staircases are usually well hidden in some unappetising, musty corner. Do we cycle to the supermarket? But where would we put the groceries then? ‘And yet exercise is like free medicine for god knows how many afflictions,’ Chin A Paw sighs. It’s good for your circulation, it strengthens your heart and gets your blood vessels in better condition, it makes your muscles and bones stronger, and it’s good for your immune system – to name just a few of the advantages. Your mood and self-confidence benefit from exercise as well. And yes, that also works if you sit a lot in addition to your active life. Because sitting a lot isn’t so bad, but not getting enough exercise is. So what are you waiting for? Get up and move!

Just 21 minutes

According to the Health Council of the Netherlands, adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise a week, spread over several days. That comes down to 21 minutes a day. Longer, more frequent and more intense exercise is even better. Less than half of us achieve this minimum. So there’s plenty of room for improvement. You don’t even need to go to the gym to achieve 21 minutes a day. Because activities such as gardening and washing the windows qualify as moderately intense exercise. More sporty activities, such as cycling to the station or supermarket count as well. There’s still much to be gained from commuting. Statistics Netherlands (CBS) estimates that more than 49 per cent of Dutch people use some kind of motorised vehicle as transport if the distance between home and work is 3.7 km to 5 km. About 37 per cent take their car, while three per cent hitch a ride with someone, four per cent take the bus, tram or metro, and another four per cent opt for their moped or scooter. If all these people were to follow in the footsteps of the 49.9 per cent that do take their bike, then that would result in 20 minutes of additional exercise per day per person.

The sitting Dutchman

The average Dutch person sits about 8.7 hours a day, according to CBS. If you have an office job you’ll easily surpass that. Because not only do you sit on your office chair, but you probably sit in a train or car too, or at home while eating, watching TV or reading a good book. As a result, people with office jobs sit for an average of 10.1 hours a day. More sitting statistics:

  • On average, women sit longer than men.
  • People with limited education sit less than people with a higher education.
  • We all sit less during the weekend than on weekdays.
  • Sitting is connected to watching TV, smoking, using the smartphone, stress and snacking.
  • The Dutch sit more than any other citizen of the European Union.

(photo credits: Ryan McVay/Getty Images, Sabine Joosten/HH (36-37), Jim Wilson/The New York Times/HH, Agor/Getty Images)