Is Prolonged Sitting the New Smoking?

by Editor
Published: Updated:

By Beth Rush

Have you heard people say, “Sitting is the new smoking?” Many today know the dangers of a regular tobacco habit. However, they might not give as much consideration to their sedentary lifestyles — how comparable are the health risks?

Some argue that introducing a known toxin into your body differs from simply remaining on your couch too long. However, the human body requires regular movement to function at its best. Staying idle is analogous to leaving a car undriven and unmaintained in your driveway for years.

How dangerous is a sedentary lifestyle, and how much sitting per day is unhealthy? Are the negative effects of sitting truly as bad as nicotine? Here’s a closer look at whether sitting is the new smoking.

The Negative Health Effects of Prolonged Sitting

Prolonged sitting has negative health effects on multiple bodily systems. Here’s how it impacts five of your major ones.

1. Cardiovascular

Your heart is a muscle. Although it contains a different type of tissue than your biceps, it nevertheless gets stronger with regular exercise. Conversely, it grows weaker with inactivity.

Furthermore, a sedentary lifestyle allows fatty deposits to build up in your arteries. Clogging the ones leading to your heart can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Regular activity prevents these gunky deposits, keeping your blood flowing.

2. Metabolism

If you ask people why they exercise, many state weight loss as a goal. The beauty of physical activity is that it doesn’t only burn calories while you exert yourself. Your metabolism revs up for up to 14 hours after a tough workout session.

That’s not all. Exercise increases lean muscle tissue, which is more metabolically active than fat. As a result, your body burns more calories to maintain its strength gains. Prolonged sitting robs you of all these fat-burning benefits, making you more likely to gain weight.

3. Musculoskeletal

You probably know your muscles weaken without regular exercise. However, did you know it also impacts your bones? Weight-bearing activities are among the best ways to prevent osteoporosis.

Furthermore, prolonged sitting can lead to back pain, one of the most common disabling conditions responsible for multiple missed work days. The change in pressure can aggravate degenerative disc disease. Often, the pain makes you feel like moving less — but gentle activities like walking, light jogging, and yoga are often your ticket to relief.

4. Digestion

Have you noticed that you poop less when you don’t get much activity? Prolonged sitting results in less blood flow to all organs, including your stomach and intestines.

Movement can reduce your risk of gut conditions, including diverticulosis, leaky gut, and inflammatory bowel disease. Get in the habit of taking a short walk after dinner and note the effect on your digestion.

5. Mental Health

A negative health effect of prolonged sitting that many people fail to recognize is its impact on your mental state. One of the primary drivers is cortisol, a stress hormone that increases with exertion. However, regular, moderate exercise is one of the best ways to keep levels in check.

Two of the symptoms of high cortisol include depression and anxiety. Excess cortisol lowers levels of two neurotransmitters connected to happiness and pleasure — serotonin and dopamine. Some studies show regular exercise is as effective as an antidepressant in certain patients.

How Much Sitting Per Day Is Unhealthy?

Fortunately, you don’t need to move as much as you may think. An analysis of 13 studies showed that sitting for more than eight hours daily, when combined with no exercise resulted in a similar risk of death to obesity and smoking. Those working desk jobs may understandably tremble.

However, note that the effect only occurs when combined with no physical activity. How much movement do you need? The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 150 to 300 minutes per week for adults, translating into 30 to 60 minutes daily.

7 Tips to Get Up and Move More Often

Now that you understand why too much sitting per day is unhealthy use these tips to get moving more often.

1. Take Walking Pomodoro Breaks

The Pomodoro work method consists of working for 25 minutes, followed by a five-minute break. Instead of scrolling social media on your phone, use your Pomodoro periods as a walk break. Take a quick lap around the office or building by stepping outside for some fresh air.

2. Go Variable

Consider a variable-height desk if you work at a computer. These let you segue between sitting and standing. As a bonus, many users report less back pain when they alternate throughout the day.

3. Walk or Bike It

Maybe your office isn’t an easy commute—but the corner store is. Whenever possible, walk or bike to your destination.

If you have a bit of spare cash, an e-bike or a conversion kit for your current ride has you zipping up steep hills with less effort than it takes to pedal a recumbent at the gym.

4. Participate in Regular Exercise

A regular exercise routine can help you meet your movement quota. Fortunately, there’s a world of apps that are even cheaper than a gym membership. Lacing up your sneakers for a 30-minute walk is always free.

5. Volunteer to Run Errands

Does your boss need someone to run to the post office or Staples? Raise your hand for the assignment. You’ll up your daily step count and gain a reputation as a helper around the workplace.

6. Play With Your Kids

Many kids today sit too much, resulting in a childhood obesity epidemic. Head to the park with your kiddos. You’ll both benefit from the movement and the decrease in screen time, and you can sneak in some triceps dips and squats on the bench while watching them play.

If you have an elliptical machine, treadmill, or exercise bike, get on it while you watch TV. You can also dance during commercial breaks or do situps and pushups while listening to educational podcasts.

Move It

The negative effects of prolonged sitting affect multiple bodily systems. In a way, sitting is the new smoking, as it causes an equivalent risk of premature death.

Knowing how much sitting per day is unhealthy is half the battle. The other is following the simple steps above to get moving more often and safeguard your well-being.

Beth Rush is the travel editor at Body+Mind. She has 5+ years of writing about how to travel with celiac disease, nutritional deficiencies, and/or hormonal disorders. She praises bucket list trips and the digital nomad lifestyle as ways to bolster empathy and life satisfaction. 

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