• Sarah Terpin

Is Sitting the New Smoking?

Whether you work at a desk, or just tend to get sucked into activities like reading, crafts, or puzzles, sitting for long periods of time can contribute to many common pain complaints, as well as decrease your overall health. When Dr. Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, coined the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking,” he was being dramatic- but he wasn’t being insincere. The negative impact prolonged sitting has on your health is as significant and as widespread as something like smoking. Here are just a few of the things studies have linked to sitting:


Cardiovascular Disease: Dr. Levine cites a study comparing adults who spent less than 2 hours a day sitting (in front of tv or computer screens) with those who spent more than 4 hours a day. They found that those who sat more, had a 50% increase in death from all causes, and were 34% more likely to develop heart failure than those who were standing or moving--even when controlling for the overall amount of exercise study participants were engaged in.


Type II Diabetes: Several studies have shown a correlation between extended periods of sitting and higher triglycerides and decreased ability to regulate blood glucose. And, that the amount of time sitting was a more important factor in this correlation than the amount of time exercising.


Cancer: Inactivity has been shown to be a cause or significant factor in a variety of different cancers, including breast, colon, lung, prostate, and ovarian cancers. Although we aren’t exactly sure why sitting increases the risk of these cancers, there are a number of chemical markers in the body that increase with prolonged sitting that also seem to have a role in the disease.


Lifespan: Multiple studies have been done on sitting and overall lifespan. A 2010 study showed that for each extra hour participants spent sitting during an 7 year period, their overall risk of dying increased by 11%. A 2012 study showed that if the average American reduced their daily sitting to 3 hours a day, life expectancy would climb by 2 years.


Unfortunately, chances are if you have an Atlanta-sized commute, or spend most of your work day at a desk, you fall into this sedentary category. This means you need to make some adjustments to treat your body right and improve your overall health. If you need more reasons to get up and move more frequently during the day, here are a few other negative side effects of too much sitting:


Back, Neck, and Sciatic Pain from Sitting: Our lower back experiences 90% more pressure when sitting compared with standing, causing increased stress on joints, muscles, nerves, and discs. Compound that with poor posture and it is no wonder that complaints of pain or sciatica increase in populations who sit for long periods of time during the day.


Additionally, our head weighs approximately 10 pounds. In poor posture, that weight is multiplied, so the strain on the neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles can cause pain, reduced movement, or injury. Next time you find yourself with a headache at the end of the day, or pain anywhere along your spine, consider getting up and moving more.


Athletic Performance: Prolonged sitting (whether in good posture or bad) increases pressure on the glutes, and leads to weakness in these muscles. This means less stability in the hips, and less power coming from the legs. Sitting also shortens and tightens the hip flexors which will make you weaker, less flexible, and less mobile. Finally, posture is a habit; if you sit for 8 hours with poor posture, that is going to spill over into other areas of our life, including when we exercise. Poor posture when we exercise leads to injury.


Anxiety/Depression: Anecdotally, we are seeing a strong correlation between sedentary behavior and both anxiety and depression. In some studies, adults and children who sat 7 hours a day were 3x more likely to have symptoms of anxiety or depression than those who sat less than 4 hours a day.


Exercise Doesn’t Negate Extended Periods of Sitting: There are many benefits to exercise, and I will be the first to encourage a regular exercise habit. Unfortunately, you can’t just off-set 8-10 hours of sitting with an hour of exercise. The ill effects of sitting listed above are similar for everyone with a sedentary lifestyle (defined as 6 or more hours a day spent sitting) regardless of your morning or evening workout routine.


Hopefully by now you are convinced that you need to get up and move more during the day, but knowledge isn’t power unless you have some actionable ideas to back it up. Below I have provided FIVE easy ways to increase your activity and decrease prolonged sitting throughout the day:


  1. Get up from your seat every 30 min. Set an alarm on your phone or computer if this helps. Take a walk, stretch, squat, exercise...do anything you can to change up your posture.

  2. Get (and use!) a sit-stand desk. There are some tasks that are just easier to perform sitting and others that can be done just as easily standing. Changing position is also beneficial in preventing any specific muscle group from fatiguing or any one region from experiencing too much pressure or stress.

  3. Take public transportation or other alternatives to driving whenever you can. Walking to and from stops, the ability to vary your posture during your commute time, and increased muscle and cardiovascular activity all help cut down on the ill effects of too much sitting.

  4. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. I know that this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it is a great way to turn a passive ride into a few minutes of beneficial movement, muscle activity, and cardiovascular work. Even if you work in a high-rise and can’t (or don’t want to) make it all the way up on foot, taking even the first or last few floors by stair will make a big difference.

  5. Stop working through lunch. Many of us (guilty!) work through our lunch breaks, either because we feel too busy during the day, or don’t want to stay later in the afternoon. But using that break during the day to get up and take a short walk (and eat, too!) can do you a lot more good.


At Functionize Health & Physical Therapy, we are dedicated to helping you get the most from your body and your life. When we say Movement is Medicine, we mean it; but if you have difficulty increasing your activity for any reason, or you just need more help with a plan, give us a call today at 404-907-4196.


Thanks for reading!

Sarah Terpin, PT, DPT

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