Is sitting the new smoking?
“Excuse me sir, but I’m going to need to see your I.D before you buy that couch…”
Reading the reports that sitting has become the new smoking, a small part of me was quite excited. Ok, if I’m being completely honest, it was a large part. In my mind I could already picture my responses to different work scenarios. When asked to stay late at the office – ‘Sorry sir, this chair has caused a spike in my sugar level’ or ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to leave early, this position is putting me at risk for a stroke’. Perhaps the cheekiest of all may have been during a job interview – ‘Does the company medical plan cover sitting?’ At least I was excited until reality set in and one examines the statement a little closer. The idea that sitting is the new smoking is attractive, thought provoking and undoubtedly, slightly misleading.
A 2014 study investigating the effect of sitting on telomeres (which are an essential part of human cells that affect how our cells age, and thereby linked to lifespan) discovered that sedentary lifestyles cause a shortening of the telomeres. Another study, completed in 2010, showed there was a correlation between sitting and mortality associated with cardiovascular disease. Yet, in 2015 the international journal of epidemiology found that sitting is not associated to mortality risks.
The issue of whether sitting is in fact the new smoking at this point is primarily theoretical whereas the evidence against smoking has been concrete enough to be given warnings by the World Health Organization – so you can relax, you may not need to show your ID for that new couch after all. However, this does not mean we can be entirely dismissive of the effect that an overly sedentary lifestyle can have on individuals.
The effect of sedentary lifestyles on the body
The cardiovascular system has been shown to be affected by sedentary lifestyles that involve a lot of sitting. Thrombosis (clots that form in the veins, usually the legs) is common among those who sit for long periods of time. Moreover it has also been suggested that there is a correlation between excessive sitting and high blood pressure in both adults and children.
Perhaps the most obvious effect of a sedentary lifestyle is weight gain. Inactivity can negatively affect metabolism (the ability to burn fats). This lowered metabolism makes it easier for individuals to gain weight. As a result, this weight gain can then result in obesity which has been closely linked to health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and stroke.
Ever heard of the saying ‘if you don’t use it, you will lose it’? Well, it turns out this saying has some truth to it. Muscles that are not being used in the body slowly degenerate. Inactivity causes a reduction in muscle mass which can affect our everyday movement.
Osteoporosis, a condition where bones become brittle, is a common part of the ageing process. However, sedentary lifestyles are shown to exacerbate and catalyze this process. Engaging in physical activates such as standing stimulates our bones (primarily in our hips) to become thicker. Being inactive causes the bones in our body to have a low density. A low mineral density in the bone makes it susceptible to breakage and other forms of injury.
There has also been a correlation between sedentary lifestyles and increased mortality. However, the causal relationship between the two has yet to be fully established.
The effect of sedentary lifestyles on the mind
If that’s not making you give your chair the extreme side eye then maybe this will. Not only has maintaining a sedentary lifestyle negatively affected us physically but it can also be quite damage to our psyche as well. Excessive sitting has been implicated in negatively affecting our mental health.
Research conducted has been shown that overly sedentary lifestyles result in lower amounts of energy which can influence mental conditions such as anxiety. While studies are still being conducted to determine if there is a direct causal relationship, findings so far suggest that sedentary lifestyles can also affect sleep patterns.
It has also been found that these types of lifestyles can cause social withdrawal. This lack of social interaction can result in loneliness which has also been shown to have a correlation with higher mortality rates. You can read a bit more here.
Why have we become so inactive?
You are going to be hard pressed to find someone who would argue with you that the population in our time is more active than those that have gone before us. Over time we have progressively become less active.
A major contributor as to why we have become more sedentary is the evolution of technology. We can look at this in a vacuum and focus mainly on the fact that technology has improved our transportation and comfort level thus making our lifestyles less active.
However we can go a bit further and even compare the methods of work in the present and the past. Technology has made it so that we need to expend less energy to receive the same output or results. It has also meant that there has been a change from a more traditional, agricultural based society to one that is more industrialized. Robert, for example, may find he spends all his time working behind a desk whereas work for his great-great grandparent may have involved tending to produce and livestock on a farm. The latter of which requires more energy and is more active.
10 Simple ways to break up sedentary lifestyles
You’re probably thinking we’re about to recommend that you go to the gym. While that may be true in that working out regularly at the gym can help you stay active and motivated there are simple things you can incorporate into your daily life to beat a sedentary lifestyle. Here are 10 of them.
1. Stop using the elevator
Instead of taking the elevator why not use the stairs? Simple as it might be, substituting the stairs for the elevator is a great way to insert activity into your everyday life.
2. Park further away
Whether it’s at work or the grocery store, you can benefit from parking your car further away from the entrance. This tactic forces you to walk a little extra each time – and have a chance to stop and smell the roses.
3. Take short breaks during work
When at work, especially if you have a desk job, it may be a good idea to take short break in between tasks. Not only will your eyes thank you, but it gives you an opportunity to stretch your muscles and keep your blood circulation up.
4. Seek out an active hobby
This can take the form of a sport or even gardening. Find an active hobby for your recreational time that you love which would keep your body moving. Yes, Pokémon Go counts.
5. Work while standing
This option may not seem attractive to the lazy among us but standing while working is a viable option to break out of a sedentary lifestyle. It forces your muscles to work (while you work) and also burns calories. You may even be able to increase your productivity.
6. Take your pets for a walk and/or your kids out to play
For the parent, this is a good way to keep yourself and your family active. It is also an opportunity for you to break unhealthy familial habits in your kids, while having more family time. For the pet owner, walking your pet is a great way to deepen your bond, keep both of you healthy and keep your pet’s senses alert.
7. Work out while watching TV
An easy way to do this is by investing in a treadmill. Placing the treadmill in front of the TV allows you to engage in some exercise while watching one of your favorite shows. Or, look up some exercises or stretches on YouTube, and try some out in your living room while the TV is on.
8. Give messages directly
Instead of using the phone or email to deliver message to a colleague, try walking. By delivering the information in person you are able to insert a tiny bit more of activity into your day. These add up.
9. Bike or walk to your destinations more
Not only will this give your body a needed workout but it is also a green solution for the environmentally conscious. Biking or walking to your destination instead of taking a motor vehicle will help with your metabolism, weight and circulation.
10. Have fun tracking your steps
Invest in a tracker that will count your steps. An example of this is the Fitbit. A great way to make this more fun would be to involve some of your colleagues and friends to see who can have the most steps during the day. This will keep you motivated and active.
The lack of concrete causal evidence to link sitting to mortality separates it from being comparable to smoking. However, the correlation being sedentary lifestyles and major diseases cannot be ignored. An evolving society, aided by technology, has without a doubt made our lives simpler but it has also caused us to become lazier, at least when compared to our predecessors. Incorporating some of the tips listed above will help you make your lifestyle more active and ultimately healthier. You may even feel more productive and free up some more time for doing the things you love.