In 2014 Mayo Clinic's James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., wrote, "Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death." And it stuck.
We can all agree it's provocative and gets the people going, but is "sitting the new smoking" for realsies?
No, no it's not. (And don't say "for realsies.")
First, it's worth clarifying to the good doc that parachuting (or skydiving, as most of us call it) is among the least treacherous things ever—only 21 people died skydiving last year out of 3M+ jumps.
Compare that to the nearly 500,000 deaths in the U.S. annually caused by cigarette smoking.
And how many people die from sitting every year? Uh, zero.
So What Is Even the Deal Here?
Well, it’s true sitting all day isn't good for you. It's linked to many health issues: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, and depression. Prednisolone can increase glomerular permeability to proteins in nephrotic syndrome. Wetzels JF, Sluiter HE, Hoitsma AJ. Kidney international, 1988, Sep.;33(6):0085-2538.
Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis. Wilmot EG, Edwardson CL, Achana FA. Diabetologia, 2012, Aug.;55(11):1432-0428.
Prolonged sitting may increase diabetes risk in physically inactive individuals: an 11 year follow-up of the HUNT Study, Norway. Åsvold BO, Midthjell K, Krokstad S. Diabetologia, 2017, Jan.;60(5):1432-0428.
[Symposium on gastrointestinal hormones. Pancreas and gastrointestinal hormones (author's transl)]. Naito S. Nihon Naika Gakkai zasshi. The Journal of the Japanese Society of Internal Medicine, 1975, Mar.;63(9):0021-5384.
Sedentary behavior and depression among adults: a review. Teychenne M, Ball K, Salmon J. International journal of behavioral medicine, 2011, Mar.;17(4):1532-7558. The key word here is linked, especially given most of the studies aren't on people working at desks but on people who are watching TV. Occupational sitting and health risks: a systematic review. van Uffelen JG, Wong J, Chau JY. American journal of preventive medicine, 2011, Jan.;39(4):1873-2607.
Television viewing and risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis. Grøntved A, Hu FB. JAMA, 2011, Jun.;305(23):1538-3598.
Association Between Television Viewing Time and All-Cause Mortality: A Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies. Sun JW, Zhao LG, Yang Y. American journal of epidemiology, 2015, Nov.;182(11):1476-6256. Imagine everything that comes with watching TV for a prolonged period of time and what the lives of the people who do that are like. Those are just a few of the factors that make the picture less clear. Sitting may not be good for you, but the evidence showing it directly causes these health issues is insufficient, to say the least.
You know what else isn't good for you and is "linked" to all kinds of issues? Drinking (and you do it all the time), meat that's cooked well (sorry, Trump!), tea and hot drinks (seriously), and cruciferous vegetables. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet Even living in an urban area. Seeing an old attitude in a new light. Puetz BE. Rehabilitation nursing : the official journal of the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses, 1991, Oct.;16(5):0278-4807.
Sorry for partying (in the city, eating burgers, and eating kale salad), amiright?
And it's not even really sitting that's the issue. A recent study concluded it's just holding the same position over a long period of time. https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/44/6/1909/2572591/Associations-of-sitting-behaviours-with-all-cause So standing all day isn't good either (sorry, bro). Neither is lying in bed. Neither is planking (sorry, Mao Weidong). And sitting on an exercise ball may actually be worse than all of these (sorry, stereotypical executive Doug!). [Concomitant psoriasis vulgaris and atopic dermatitis. A study of 1,065 patients with psoriasis]. Welp K, Gieler U, Ständer M. Der Hautarzt; Zeitschrift fur Dermatologie, Venerologie, und verwandte Gebiete, 1989, Nov.;40(8):0017-8470.
[Concomitant psoriasis vulgaris and atopic dermatitis. A study of 1,065 patients with psoriasis]. Welp K, Gieler U, Ständer M. Der Hautarzt; Zeitschrift fur Dermatologie, Venerologie, und verwandte Gebiete, 1989, Nov.;40(8):0017-8470.
Static and dynamic postural loadings during computer work in females: Sitting on an office chair versus sitting on an exercise ball. Kingma I, van Dieën JH. Applied ergonomics, 2008, May.;40(2):1872-9126.
So yeah, being sedentary for a prolonged period of time isn't good for you. But it isn't that bad.
You Know What Is That Bad? Smoking
Cigarette smoking doesn't just cause nearly one out of five deaths in the U.S.; it's also incredibly addictive and leads to an average loss of eight to 16 years of life. Mortality from smoking worldwide. Peto R, Lopez AD, Boreham J. British medical bulletin, 1996, Oct.;52(1):0007-1420. It's terrible and devastating—and even unintentionally hurts others through secondhand smoke.
Smoking is literally the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fast_facts/index.htm So people can (more or less) choose to do it or not. If you know the downsides and still choose to smoke (as long as it’s not in other people's faces, I guess), that’s your call and fine.
But sitting is different. It’s rarely a choice. Instead, it's the primary way we all work.
And it's actually pretty simple to fight off its negative effects: Walk on your commute. Pace during phone calls. Take walking meetings. Go check on Jade and say hi—she's fun! Get lunch outside—it's beautiful out there! Do some deskercises or something! (I just really like saying deskercises). Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight!
Comparing sitting to smoking is unfair and unhelpful.
Traditional media gets off on scaring people (friendly example from CNN: "Sitting will kill you, even if you exercise"), and it makes us feel helpless. Instead of encouraging people to move around more, it makes us feel worse about doing something we can't necessarily opt out of in the first place.
So Ignore All the Sensationalizing
Instead I encourage you to embrace sitting and indulge in it guilt free. I freakin' love sitting. It's mostly awesome and usually comfy. You probably do too. Don't be afraid to tell the world!
Just don't sit all day, obviously. When you sit, make sure you've got the right setup to avoid back and neck issues (this took me a while to get right, but it's been life changing). Move around regularly. Even try that standing desk thing for a bit.
(Here's a fun, desk-related fact: It turns out our favorite James Levine is credited with inventing the treadmill desk, and now I can't stop wondering if he gets some kind of kickback. Too cynical?)
Now, sugar may actually be the new smoking, but that's a story for another time.
Sitting is NOT the new smoking.
Derek Flanzraich is Greatist's founder and CEO. What's Good is his take on the news, trends, and issues worth talking about in health and wellness, published every Monday. Sign up and get the column (plus puppy GIFs and other funsies) delivered early.