A few years ago, headline after headline warned of the health risks of sitting, people were searching for standing desks online, and companies used photos of their standing or treadmill desks to show their progressive approach to health in the workplace. The idea made sense: sitting most of the day and not moving understandably would have health consequences. However, further research questions how accurate it is to compare sitting to smoking. The verdict? They’re not the same.
As we know definitively, smoking is a leading cause of cancer and leads to 1 out of 5 deaths in the US alone. Smoking cigarettes is detrimental to almost every organ and increases your likelihood of stroke, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, COPD, lung disease, and chronic bronchitis, to name a few. Of course, the studies on smoking have been much more extensive over a much larger population and a longer period of time than the studies for prolonged sitting. Still, we can conclude that while smoking in itself can kill you, sitting in itself cannot.
Further, the urgency behind quitting smoking and avoiding prolonged sitting don’t compare. Quitting smoking can save your life, and has been shown to even reverse harmful health effects. Getting off your chair and working at a standing desk does not have the same degree of impact on improving your health.
There have been claims that extensive periods of sitting, such as at work, can lead to diabetes, heart disease and early death. The research that draws these connections are, as new research often can be, limited. It is inaccurate to make conclusions that sitting at your job increases your chances for early death, or that it is comparable to the health concerns that come with smoking.
What are the Facts?
A new reveals results from a 13 year study of observing almost 5000 workers how much sitting led to diabetes and other health concerns. To review in brief, the participating subjects began the study at middle age and did not have diabetes, circulatory or heart issues at the start of the study. Factors taken into account included physical activity, obesity, and sitting at work as opposed to sitting at home.
discussing different studies on sitting concluded that sitting does not appear to lead to diabetes, unless obesity and sedentary lifestyle are also linked. To go further, claims that prolonged sitting comes with health risks are not that straightforward. The common idea taken from the discussion is that sitting at your desk all day is certainly not beneficial, but findings show that it isn’t the sitting at work that is connected to health risks like heart disease, diabetes and early death but rather the prolonged sitting at home in front of the television. Even then, there are other, more complicated, issues involved. Socioeconomic status, employment status, diet, physical health, mental health, and other health conditions all play important roles in the over-simplified idea that sitting equals health risks.
What has been determined is that standing for long periods of time is not a significant improvement from sitting for long periods of time. Working at a standing desk is not enough to prevent health risks or to noticeably reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease or premature death. Since it is not sitting that is the primary cause for concern, merely sitting less will not be the primary answer for better health. The results from further study focus on the need for increased daily movement and exercise for best health benefits and for lowering your risk of stoke, heart attack, and heart disease, as well as early death.
Physical Activity Matters – A Lot
There are articles asserting that moderate to even intense physical exercise cannot counter the health risks that come with prolonged sitting. Some research was even saying that an hour of daily exercise will not make up for long periods of sitting. It is important to clear up is that it is not true that exercise cannot combat the effects of prolonged sitting. Once again, the health risks from sitting alone are not so definitive that working out three times a week or even every day is irrelevant. Exercise (and eating a healthy diet) will always make a difference. The British Journal study tells us that the clear health risks show up in those who regularly sit for long periods of time while watching television, and are also inactive or inactive and obese. How you sit, and in what context, matters since it likely ties into other lifestyle factors.
There are practical ideas to apply from these findings. Don’t save moving for just before or after work. You still want to keep movement a priority all day long. You can look for ways to work it into your commute to and from work by parking further away or biking at least part of the way. Take breaks to stretch, walk upstairs to a further bathroom, and turn short desk conversations with colleagues into walking conversations. When seated, you can stretch your neck, your arms, engage your core, and roll your shoulders. Start where you can and build from there!
Your final takeaways? Sitting to do your job isn’t going to take years off your life, and most importantly: the same health truths are still true. Eat clean, take your prescribed medication, and exercise daily. Instead of worrying about sitting or standing, focus on moving and being active every day. This will make a positive difference in your health and life.