Is sitting the new smoking?

Smoking, sitting and exercise

It’s easy to forget that smoking was once considered the height of sophistication and class… until we discovered the impact of tobacco and tar on our bodies.

And now some are trying to tar sitting with that same brush.

Yes, you heard correctly – sitting, as in that natural bodily state of rest.

In recent years sitting has been sighted as the new smoking. The comparison was first coined by James A. Levine, Clinical Director from the Mayo Institute, and has since gained momentum with there being as many as 300 references tothe quote as ‘fact.’

Though there may initially have been method to the madness when considering that leading a sedentary lifestyle is proven to be directly correlated to many diseases, beyond this acknowledgement the statement seems a little extreme!

We’re here to get to the bottom of how detrimental sitting is to our health, if it really is as noxious as cigarettes, and what we can do to get moving more.

Where did the concept of sitting being bad for the health come from?

The link between illness and sitting first emerged as early as the 1950s, when researchers found double decker bus drivers were twice as likely to have heart attacks than their bus conductor colleagues.  The research observed that drivers sat for 90 per cent of their shifts, whilst the conductors stayed active and on their feet throughout the day, leading them to deduce that immobility is directly correlated to a higher risk of disease.

Many studies have gone on to confirm that excessive sitting slows down the metabolism – which in turn affects our ability to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure as well as metabolise fat. This then leads to weakened muscles and bones as well as becoming overweight or obese. It is at this point that the chances of developing type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer or having an early death are greatly increased.

As already mentioned it was James A.Levine who first espoused that sitting was equal to smoking on the scale of bad habits for our health. And though the physician, who perhaps unsurprisingly also invented the treadmill desk, clearly thinks sitting or being inactive is harmful, is it really clear if he was being literal or hyperbolic? To what extent have other scientists attached greater significance and literality to his words as time has gone on?

How true is it that sitting is as bad as smoking?

If we’re going to take Levine’s statement literally then we need to look at the cold, hard facts.

The 2018 American Journal of Public Health acknowledged the harms of excessive sitting (for more than eight hours a day), identifying that it was found to increase the risk of premature death and some chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease by 10-20%. However despite this concession, it also found that these statistics pale in comparison to the risks associated with smoking.

Smoking increases the risk of premature death from all causes by approximately 180% and lung cancer by some 1000%

That is almost 100 times more devastating than the risks that excessive sitting poses.

Plus we do also need to acknowledge a crucial point; addiction.

Smoking is universally known to be highly addictive to the individual as well as harmful to those in proximity, whereas sitting is neither addictive nor dangerous to others, and some would argue rather necessary – We do need to rest after all!

One of the key researchers of the study, Dr.Boyle, summed it up when he said “Equating the risk of sitting with smoking is clearly unwarranted and misleading, and only serves to trivialize the risks associated with smoking”

So although from a health perspective, sitting may not be as bad for you as smoking, we mustn’t totally dismiss Levine’s comparison.

Excessive sitting or inactivity carries with it serious health risks that the physician was right to point out – especially when most of us lead such sedentary lives, particularly in the workplace.

Really how much risk are we at from this risk?

Quite a lot actually.

A huge percentage of adults in the UK spend 9 or more hours a day sitting so once we do the math it’s easy to see that actually we’re at greater risk than we might have previously believed.

You might be quick to exclude yourself from this group but when you consider the time spent watching TV, using a computer, reading, doing homework, travelling by car, bus or train and desk-working, well it quickly adds up!

So, although you might not be indulging in cigarettes, you’re not entirely out of the danger zone and could still find yourself at increased risk of disease.

But fret not, circumventing this is literally a walk in the park… All you need to do is move a little!

In the UK it’s recommended that we exercise either for 150 minutes a week at a moderately intense level, or for 75 minutes at a vigorous level, and that we actively reduce our sitting time.  

There are many published studies that show that just 20 minutes of walking per day can reduce the risk of premature death by 20-30%

While walking for just 25 minutes per day can add as much as seven years to your life expectancy.  

It seems straightforward enough, however currently only 60% of the population come anywhere close to these Government guidelines.

Does running outrun walking?

More intense exercise is shown to be more beneficial for our health, with running being marginally more impactful than walking.  

One study of 55,000 adult runners showed that they gained 3 extra years of life compared to sedentary individuals, even when only running for 5 minutes a day! 

And some studies have even shown that running reduces the risk of dying by as much as 40%, albeit if you resist smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and other hazardous habits.

So essentially yes – increasing the intensity of your activity, or running, will outrun walking when it comes to improving your health.

And it’s reassuring for those time-pressed individuals to learn that even an intense 7-minute workout will drastically improve your overall health.

However, if intensity is not your thing, that’s also ok!

Walking provides many of the benefits of extreme exercise at low risk and is a great place to start.  

Plus you can continually add to your fitness levels by amping up the intensity over time.

Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk

As well as all the previously discussed physical health benefits of being active, it also carries with it many psychological and physiological advantages.

It’s been shown that exercisers are biologically younger than their chronological age.

They maintain their muscle mass and fibre type, which are good markers of healthy ageing and are not only fitter and stronger but also have better immune systems, reflexes, memories, and balance.

Their metabolic profiles more closely resemble those 30 years younger than a sedentary group of the same age. 

Essentially by exercising you’re practically getting younger! Call off the search for the coveted elixir of life – if you just stay fit you’ll add quantity and quality to your life

And it’s not all just about physical strength, a meta-analysis of 500,000 adults identified that those who exercised (even as little as 10 minutes a day) were happier.

Exercise has been shown to improve mood and treat depression and this impact is even greater when done within the context of a group. 

On top of that, studies have shown that weight-lifting greatly improves one’s mood. A 2018 analysis of 33 trials identified that resistance trainers have less symptoms of depression or likelihood of developing it, even when just doing short bursts of exercise twice a week. A little goes a long way!

Finally, exercise makes you smarter at any age.  We see improvements in the reading age of children who partake in cardiovascular activity, as well as in the cognitive function and memory of the elderly. Exercise is shown to measurably increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are made, processed and stored, meaning that some memory loss is reversible.  This can be achieved with as little as 40 minutes of walking 3 times a week. 

The bottom line is this does not need to be complicated.  We were designed to move and the great news is that in doing so we reap a huge list of life-long mental and physical health benefits.  Sitting is counterintuitive to our need to move so try to reduce excessive time spent doing so, it’s just as easy done than said!

At work consider upping the time spent walking in your commute or to meetings, you could even look into finding a standing desk as well.

Or if you are still WFH, make sure you take daily breaks to stretch your legs and add to your step count.

The quality and quantity of our lives is something that we care deeply about at CorLife. We understand the problems that working at a desk poses for inactivity and excessive sitting (especially during lockdown!), but we are here to support you on your journey to a healthier and more active you. Our programme provides clear guidance and aid for all businesses looking for a happy, healthy and productive workforce. 

Ultimately sitting might not be as addictive or destructive as smoking but it’s an easy way to invite health complications and disease – instead let’s walk our way to a better future!

A few Journal Reference’s for those interested can be found at:

  1. Jeff K. Vallance, Paul A. Gardiner, Brigid M. Lynch, Adrijana D’Silva, Terry Boyle, Lorian M. Taylor, Steven T. Johnson, Matthew P. Buman, Neville Owen. Evaluating the Evidence on Sitting, Smoking, and Health: Is Sitting Really the New Smoking? American Journal of Public Health, 2018; 108 (11): 1478 DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2018.304649
  • Chau JY, Reyes-Marcelino G, Burnett AC, Bauman AE, Freeman B. Hyping health effects: a news analysis of the “new smoking” and the role of sitting. Br J Sports Med. 2018;bjsports-2018-099432. CrossrefMedlineGoogle Scholar