Is Sitting REALLY The New Smoking?

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January 31, 2023

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If you work an office job, there’s a good chance you spend quite a bit of time sitting down. You might have even heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” thrown around before. But what are the risks of sitting down too much? How much sitting is too much? And is it really that bad for you?

It goes without saying: you expend a lot less energy sitting down than you do standing up. We’re the first to speak up about the importance of leading an active lifestyle, as regular exercise can benefit everything from the quality of your sleep to how you manage stressful situations.

When we talk about the risks of sitting or lying down for too long, what we’re really talking about is what it means to live a sedentary lifestyle as opposed to an active one. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately two million deaths each year are attributed to physical inactivity, with sedentary lifestyles increasing all causes of mortality.

What are the risks?

Mayo Clinic has linked long periods of sitting with a number of negative health outcomes, including obesity, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar and unhealthy cholesterol levels. They also warn that prolonged periods of sitting are believed to increase the risk of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease. In fact, the WHO says it doubles the risk of cardiovascular disease and increases the risk of colon cancer, too.

The Victorian Government organisation Better Health reminds us that humans were built to stand, and being upright can help our cardiovascular system and bowel to function more effectively.

There are also other impacts to be wary of. Studies have found that sitting for long periods of time with a slumped posture can cause discomfort in the lower back, while Harvard Health has warned sitting might even increase pain. This is because hours of sitting tightens your hip flexor and hamstring muscles while stiffening your joints.

Have we convinced you to get up and move around, yet?

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But how much sitting is too much?

This one depends on a range of factors including age, any disabilities, illnesses and lifestyle factors. For example, the NHS has emphasised that recommendations around reducing time spent sitting should not be extended to wheelchair users while also acknowledging that children under five may use prams or buggies to get around.

For those that are able to, they recommend meeting the activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week and making an effort to reduce time spent sitting. The NHS estimates that adults in the UK spend approximately nine hours a day sitting down but caution there is not enough evidence to set a limit when it comes to the ideal amount of time spent sitting down.

Meanwhile, the Australian government advice for sedentary behaviour is to minimise and break up long periods of sitting and aim for sedentary recreational time of less than two hours each day. If you’re the parent to a child under five, the government recommendation for sedentary time is to not go over an hour at a time.

So... is sitting really the new smoking?

While the two have been frequently likened in the media, you can’t compare the two. In fact, one study even highlighted that drawing comparisons between the two could even serve to distort and trivialise the serious risks associated with smoking. While both behaviours can contribute to negative health outcomes, their impacts are different and the two should not be conflated.

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How to include movement in your day

The Sweat Community knows all too well how valuable it can be to lead a healthy lifestyle. A regular exercise routine goes a long way towards helping you reach your fitness goals, but also helps to maintain and improve your health.

We also know that everyone’s lifestyle - and the time they have available to dedicate to exercise - looks really different. After all, if you’re a nurse or work in hospitality, you might find more opportunities for movement throughout the day than someone working an office job has!

Struggling to find ways to stay active during your work day? Why not try…

  • Scheduling a break from sitting every 30 minutes

  • Wearing a fitness watch - some will remind you when it's time to stand up and move your body

  • Ask your colleagues if they would be up for a walking meeting, or, if you work remotely and don't need to have your camera turned on, dial into the call while pounding the pavement

  • Use your lunchbreak as a chance to move your body - reap some added benefits if you do this outdoors!

  • Try a standing desk or an under-desk treadmill 

Looking to sink your teeth into a more structured workout, but short on time? Short workouts can be just as effective, and there are plenty of workouts in the Sweat app that will take you 20 minutes or less. Unsure where to start? Here are 10 quick workouts the Sweat Community can’t get enough of.

Sweat is about so much more than your workouts

Feel your best - inside AND out

Try an exercise snack

The idea of exercise snacks came about during the pandemic, when many of our lives became more sedentary than ever. With so many people continuing to work remotely and missing out on incidental exercise such as riding our bikes to work or walking to the bus stop, including exercise snacks in our routines has never been so important. There are so many ways to sneak in those snacks - opt for the stairs instead of the lift, try a quick burst of exercise like star jumps, get busy in the garden or play with your kids!

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A more empowered you starts with Sweat, and our editorial team is here to bring you the latest fitness tips, trainer recommendations, wellbeing news, nutritional advice, nourishing recipes and free workouts.

* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.


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