Is Sitting the New Smoking? A Harvard Professor Debunks the Fable, With One Catch
I’ve already written on the laundry list of reasons why long periods of sitting can be really, really bad for you.
As studies show, when you sit all day, you not only get fatter but also dumber. Or, if you sit for most of the day, your risk of cardiovascular disease doubles compared to people who stand. Sitting for more than six hours a day is 18 percent more likely to die of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity than people who sit for less than three hours a day.
Or that – and this is literally a killer – if you sit more than 11 hours a day, the likelihood of dying in the next three years is up to 40 percent higher than that of people who sit for less than four hours .
Yes: sitting is really, really bad for you.
Sitting is not a new byproduct of the knowledge age, according to Daniel Lieberman, Harvard biology professor and author of my new favorite book Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved into Is Healthy and Rewarding.
Lieberman spent a lot of time with indigenous hunters and gatherers in Latin America. One goal was to determine how much time these individuals spent lifting, carrying, walking, running, and sitting.
Contrary to your imagination, you enter an average village in some remote part of the world and you will likely see most of the people seated. In fact, the average hunter gathering sits about 10 hours a day. And, like our ancestors, they tend to walk about five miles.
Which is exactly what you will find when you walk into the average American home or office.
How do you reconcile all of the science that claims sitting is the new smoking with the fact that the vast majority of people, regardless of their geographic location, job, or lifestyle, spend much of their days sitting down?
According to Lieberman, the problem isn’t in the time we spend working. But when you look at how much free time we have sitting down, the results get scary.
Why? Think about how you work. Even when you are seated, you are constantly on the move. To reach. Shift. Fidget. Tempo while you are on the phone. Stand up to refill your water bottle. Use the toilet. Looking outside because you’re bored.
Even though you’re sitting, you’re at least microscopic (a term I just came up with).
Compare that to sitting in your free time. Say you’ve decided to check out The Queen’s Gambit. You get a drink, a snack, a blanket and lean back on a comfortable couch or chair.
And you hardly move. Because that’s the point of chilling out.
When we crouch, stand regularly, do light activities … we contract the muscles throughout the body and set their cellular machinery in motion. These light activities stimulate muscle cells to expend energy, turn genes on and off, and perform other functions.
These activities are not serious exercises, but experiments that ask people to briefly interrupt long periods of sitting – for example, a hundred seconds every half hour – result in lower levels of sugar, fat, and so-called bad cholesterol in their blood. .and stimulate the muscles to quench inflammation and relieve physiological stress.
First, be aware of how much you are sitting at work. Get moving whenever possible. When using the phone, stand up. Stand for a zoom call. Use the selection architecture to create reasons for leaving your seat. Keep water, snacks, etc. in a different room. Set a timer to remind you to get up every 30 minutes. Take a short walk around lunchtime.
These steps, combined with the moving and fidgeting that you naturally do throughout your work, should be copious.
Then focus on being more active in your free time. Find ways to move about occasionally rather than vegetating yourself completely. Play with the dog. Fold laundry. A frequent change of position also helps.
Or use this time to do things that you normally would not be able to do. Since I think stretching is very boring, I stand on the floor for 15 minutes while watching TV and work on my flexibility. (As well as any core work I didn’t do that day as core work is my favorite exercise for making excuses not to do.)
Lieberman writes, “It must be reiterated that the scary statistics we read about sitting depend primarily on how much we sit when we are not working.”
When it comes to avoiding the harmful effects of sitting, this is what you should focus on.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.