Sitting is the new smoking

Last updated 11:00 30/05/2013

GET UP, STAND UP: "Sitting may have more to do with obesity than [lack of] physical activity."

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Don't fall off your perch, but sitting is the new smoking and your chair is out to kill you. No, really. This is the sorry state of affairs thanks to our increasingly seated existence, said doctors in an LA Times feature published earlier this week.

As evidence, the doctors pointed out various studies, including this Australian one from last year which found that every hour of (seated) TV watching we do cuts about 22 minutes from our life span. That was contrasted with this study, which estimated that smokers shorten their lives by about 11 minutes per cigarette. 

Seated smokers beware.

But, it's not just longevity that is affected by our idle ways. 

We spend as much as 80 per cent of our day sedentary and unsurprisingly a similar percentage of us experience back pain.

Being sedentary is also putting the 'sit' in obesity, as our fat burning furnaces essentially switch off when we're stationary for extended periods. Some research even suggests that it leads to the dreaded middle age spread by the mechanical pressure sitting puts on our fat cells.

"Sitting may have more to do with obesity than [lack of] physical activity," says Professor Adrian Bauman of Sydney University's School of Public Health. 

"It is almost like sort of owning a really cool sports car and letting it idle all day long," James Levine, an obesity expert from the Mayo Clinic, recently told NBC News. "The engine gets gunked up. That's what happens to our bodies. The body, as we know, simply isn't built to sit all day." 

Rather, back in the good ol' days we were out doing what our bodies were made for; foraging for food, performing various other physical tasks and spending our time in the fresh air and sunshine. 

"We had no concept of this as 'exercise' or 'working out.' It was just life," says author of Personal Paleo Code Chris Kresser.

Many of us try to counteract the complications of being strangely seated all day by doing some star jumps (or whatever) in the morning or evening. But important as any exercise is, short sharp bursts don't necessarily offset the imbalance. 

"Going for a run or walking the dog doesn't counter [inactivity]," Bauman says. "It's about total energy expenditure across the whole day."

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This is the conclusion Levine has come to as well.

"A few years ago, I would have actually said to you, you know, the person who's doing that session at the gym once a day is doing everything they need to do.  But the data that are now coming up suggests that's not the case, " he said. 

"Being sedentary for nine hours a day at the office is bad for your health whether you go home and watch television afterwards or hit the gym. It is bad whether you are morbidly obese or marathon-runner thin. It appears that what is critical and maybe even more important than going to the gym, is breaking up that sitting time." 

That said, Bauman points out that "the evidence is evolving about sitting rather than a done deal."

The reason for this is threefold.

The first question experts in the field have is how much of an independent risk sitting is from eating badly, smoking and general physical inactivity.

"I don't think it will ever be as much of a risk as smoking," Bauman says. But, "how much sitting is bad for us? ... probably somewhere between 8 and 12 hours a day and the risk accumulates.

"Is it the way we sit - continuously - and can we break up sitting - get up every hour - or do we need to reduce the total time?"

Among the solutions being bandied around are walking meetings, 'active sitting' on yoga balls and the standing or treadmill desk.

In the US, around 60,000 treadmill desks have been purchased. It is estimated that walking at a super slow pace burns 100 to 130 calories an hour. 

Anecdotally, the treadmill desks are going well and "it's completely stable to type and talk and no different to sitting down," Melbourne resident, Steve Morley told Fairfax media.

"Before we introduce policy guidelines we need very good evidence [that they will work and be effective]... Everyone will use them for a while, but will they stick with it? Sitting is embedded behaviour, most of us are not used to standing all day."

Bauman says researchers are three years into a five year program of study exploring various options and trying to understand exactly how much of an issue sitting all day is. The evidence is not yet conclusive, he says.

But it is an issue that affects nearly all of us.

And, whichever way we do it, for the good of our health, our backs and our bottoms perhaps it's time for individuals and offices alike to start rising up and sticking it to the seat.

- FFX Aus


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