Is Sitting The New Smoking?



Between driving or taking public transport to work, sitting at a desk all day and evening sedentary lifestyles, most people spend upwards of 60% of their day sitting. Too much sitting causes slower metabolism, high blood sugar, decreases in heart rate, excess body fat around the waist, abnormal cholesterol levels and higher blood pressure. You may even have heard sitting being referred to as “the new smoking”, but how accurate is this claim?

At Briarhill Family Practice, we have the benefit of having the expertise of professionals working with Strive Clinic here close to us at Briarhill Shopping Centre. Strive Clinic is a rehabilitation clinic offering services to patients with chronic illness. We asked Christina O’Connor, Strive Clinic’s resident Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist, if sitting really is the new smoking and what advice she would give individuals looking to increase their levels of physical activity?

Rather than being the “new smoking”, Christina suggests that we need to think of sitting as an important part of the wider problem of physical inactivity. “While we know that the more vigorous the exercise intensity the better”, said Christina, “we also know substantial health benefits can be made even by fairly small increases in physical activity – especially for those that are completely physically inactive.” [1] If you are currently working and sitting for more than eight hours day, you need to make an effort to exercise more to negate those effects.   

Does this mean we should be exercising every day?

Christina suggests that twenty-five minutes exercising more vigorously (i.e. you can’t talk easily while doing it) three times a week can be of as much benefit as thirty minutes moderate exercise five times a week (i.e. can talk while doing it).    If you are finding it difficult to fit exercise into your weekly routine, Christina recommends the following tips.

  • Before work – set the alarm 15 minutes early and walk the dog, go for a run, do pilates, or yoga. Or exercise while getting to work –run, cycle, take a brisk walk, or use the stairs rather than the elevator.
  • At work –Take regular breaks from sitting at your desk while you are at work.  The Sedentary Behaviour and Obesity Expert Working Group set up by the UK Department of Health recommends taking “an active break from sitting every 30 minutes.” Try strengthening exercises; stand up and sit down from the chair, march on the spot, while standing lift one leg out to the side and back,  then do the same the other side, do heel raises, and push up using your arms from the desk. During your lunch break/coffee break - go for a brisk fifteen minute walk, walk up and down the stairs, or go to a lunchtime yoga/pilates/circuit class.
  • After work – walk, cycle, run home, go to an exercise class, go for a brisk walk after your dinner for 15 minutes.

 Now back to our original question, is sitting the new smoking?

If you are meeting the weekly recommended guidelines for exercise, then it seems it is possible to offset most of the risks associated with prolonged sitting. It is really important to emphasise however that even small increases in physical activity are beneficial to those who are inactive at present.
— Christina O'Connor MSK Physiotherapist

Our advice is to spend less time sitting and more time moving overall!



[1] Ekelund et al., 2015