Why sitting is the new smoking and what you can do about it

From obesity and heart disease to increased cholesterol, osteoporosis and diabetes, the odds are stacking up against one of our most common daily activities: sitting. And reports say our sedentary lifestyle could be killing us. We talk to experts about the growing problem.

Studies indicate adults spend up to 60 per cent of their day in sedentary pursuits. Tetra Images
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How long do you spend sitting each day? Perhaps you have a lengthy commute to a job in which you are then desk-bound for hours. Follow that up with an evening in front of the television and you could be twice as likely to die early. That’s quite a shocking statement, but with more and more reports proving the link between prolonged sitting and our health, it is time we stood up and took notice.

Studies reveal that adults spend up to 60 per cent of their day in sedentary pursuits – that’s not even including time spent asleep. Moreover, it seems that simply hitting the gym a few times a week is not enough to reduce the risks.

“Research suggests that remaining seated for too long is bad for our health, regardless of how much we exercise,” says Dr Feras Bader, staff physician at the Heart and Vascular Institute, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. “As well as the impact it has on our spinal health, one of the biggest pieces of research to date [involving about 800,000 people] has revealed that sitting increases our chance of death through cardiovascular events by 90 per cent. A sedentary lifestyle is also associated with a 112 per cent increased risk of getting diabetes.”

If we had the ability to scan the body of someone who spends more than half their day sitting down, we would be shocked at the findings. In addition to the pressure and damage that poor posture and prolonged sitting places on our joints, we would witness a slowing down of metabolism and the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar and break down fat. Besides the most obvious result – obesity – too much sitting can, in the long term, narrow our respiratory organs, reduce blood circulation due to vein compression and negatively affect our blood pressure regulation.

“The body is meant to move. Movement is life,” says Dr Charles Jones, from California Chiropractic and Sports Medicine Center in Dubai. “Without it, we get muscle atrophy, weakening of the bones or osteoporosis, pooling of the blood in the extremities, sluggish digestion and a higher likelihood of diabetes and weakening of the heart. We are now seeing osteoporosis and degenerative joint disease of the spine as early as the late-teens, due to a total lack of physical fitness. This was unheard of 30 years ago. Osteoporosis was also typically only found in post-menopausal women and men over the age of 75, while degenerative arthritis was not seen until the late 50s and 60s,” says Jones.

“We are now seeing these problems much earlier due to a lack of physical exertion coupled with poor dietary habits. The statement ‘sitting is the new smoking’ is absolutely true – this is the first generation that is expected to have a shorter lifespan than its predecessor.”

The whole sit-down debate first came to light in the 1950s, when researchers discovered London bus drivers were twice as likely to have a heart attack than their conductor colleagues. More than 30,000 were screened, with the report concluding that the drivers’ sedentary roles placed them at a much higher risk of having a heart attack than the conductors, who spent most of the day on their feet. Today, however, it is not just drivers and sit-down office workers who are under threat. In this digital era, many of us are spending more time hunched over computers, tablets and smartphones than ever before.

“Digital technology has become such an integral part of life from a very young age, including here in the UAE, where 40 per cent of adolescents live an increasingly sedentary lifestyle,” says Dr Nader M Hebela, staff physician at the Neurological Institute, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. “This sedentary way of life can negatively impact the health of our spine. In fact, almost 65 per cent of people with an average age of 35 years have lower-back pain in the UAE, and the biggest factors are a lack of exercise, obesity and sedentary behaviour.”Ben Corrigan, chief executive and founder of the consultancy firm Bluehaus Group, says encouraging movement in the workplace has been a priority for his company right from the very beginning. All 55 of his employees use “sit-stand” desks, which enable them to quickly convert their sitting workstation into an upright one that they can stand and work in front of.

“We believe strongly in staff well-being and ergonomics,” he says. “In some parts of the world, companies over a certain size are legally obliged to provide sit-stand desks for their staff because they have seen the relationship between staff illness and back problems and productivity.”

Corrigan says that being in the business of workplace design and consultancy also means his company must lead by example. “For us, it makes sense and we have seen the benefits. When we design offices, we encourage our clients to consider stand-up meeting rooms, even if they are not willing to invest in sit-stand desks.”

Emma Flanagan, a purchasing manager, says that while her role in retail fashion might sound glamorous, she spends most of it in front of her computer, sitting in meetings or in the car. “I started wearing a fitness tracker to see how many steps I was taking and I was shocked to find I’d taken only 4,000 by 3pm – well under the recommended 10,000 a day. This really spurred me on to make a change. The band buzzes every hour to remind me to get up and move, and I like to do yoga stretches throughout my working day – mainly hip and back releases, as this is where I find I hold the most tension.”

As well as squeezing in an early-morning swim on her way to work, Flanagan tries to run twice a week, something she says can easily boost her steps by 6,000. When on site in the UAE’s malls, she strides out in trainers and walks up escalators before rounding off each evening by massaging her muscles with a foam roller while watching TV. “Some of my colleagues think I am a little mad, but they are now very used to seeing me on my feet and moving. I honestly feel so much better for it – physically and mentally – and couldn’t imagine a day where I just sit around anymore.”