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Fact or Myth? Is Sitting Really the New Smoking?
By David Wehby, MD
 
“Sitting is the New Smoking” is a popular phrase coined by Dr. James Levine, director of Mayo Clinic at Arizona State University. Research confirms that his statement has merit. On average, Americans sit for 11 hours each day.
 
Sedentary lifestyles are responsible for an estimated $24 billion in direct medical spending.1 Prolonged sitting and leading a sedentary life are linked to increased chances of developing serious health problems including:
• Obesity
• Type 2 diabetes
• Various types of cancers
• Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke
 
In addition, sitting too much restricts blood flow and circulation and encourages the loss of muscle tone and bone strength. Gravity and fatigue tend to take over when you sit for too long. Over time this can lead to rounded shoulders and slumped back posture, contributing to:
• Neck/low back pain
• Shoulder spurs or impingement syndrome
• Painful trigger points
• Potential disc degeneration
 
Sitting is a way of life
It’s estimated that less than 20 percent of all jobs today require moderate activity. Most jobs are sedentary. Any prolonged sitting — whether at a desk, behind the wheel, or sitting in front of a computer — is detrimental to a person’s health.
 
Unlike smoking, sitting isn’t a lifestyle choice that we can simply say “no” to and avoid. Most of us commute to work (while sitting) and then spend hours each day sitting at our jobs.
 
At home, we typically relax by sitting down to watch TV. 65% of Americans watch two or more hours of TV every day2. We log additional screen time (while sitting) when playing video games, checking social media or shopping online.
 
Tips to offset too much sitting
Here are tips to limit the effects of prolonged sitting:
• At work, park your car as far away as possible and do the same when running errands or shopping.
• If possible, take the stairs instead of the elevator.
• Take a short break from sitting about every 30 minutes. Get up to fill your water bottle, take a bathroom break or do a task away from your desk.
• When the phone rings, stand up and stay standing or pace during the call. You can also try this at home when watching TV. When a commercial break comes on, that’s your cue to stand. Move around for a couple of minutes but avoid heading to the kitchen for a snack.
• Find creative ways to walk more at work. Encourage co-workers to walk and talk with you, rather than sitting in a conference room for a meeting.
• Walk down the hall or to another office to speak with co-workers instead of calling, sending a text or email.
• Set an alarm on your cell phone to remind you to get up and move at least every hour.
 
Stand up tall
If you work at a desk or behind a computer screen all day, consider using a standing desk or placing your computer on a stand. Standing is better than sitting — but with some limitations.
 
While a standing desk can reduce the amount of time you spend sitting, you must maintain proper posture to avoid developing problems such as lower back pain. When people get tired while standing, they have a tendency to lean on the standing desk. It’s important to maintain good neck and wrist posture, too, whether seated or standing.
 
Mix it up
The negative health consequences of being sedentary accumulate when your body chronically remains in the same position with little or no movement for extended periods of time. Try mixing it up. Complete some of your tasks while sitting and others while standing. Move around and stretch between periods of sitting and standing.
 
Activity matters
Even in small increments, increasing movement throughout the day is key. It will help counteract the effects of too much sitting. Incorporating additional activity can pay big dividends. It may help you:
• shed a few pounds
• maintain muscle tone
• reduce your risk of developing serious health problems
 
So, it’s no myth that too much sitting is hazardous to your health, just as smoking is — and sitting less and moving more contributes to better overall health.
 
1 Lifespan Fitness (2013) Sitting All Day is Taking a Toll on Your Body. Retrieved from https://www.lifespanfitness.com/workplace/resources/articles/sitting-all-day-is-taking-a-toll-on-your-body
 
2 Lifespan Fitness (2013) Sitting All Day is Taking a Toll on Your Body. Retrieved from https://www.lifespanfitness.com/workplace/resources/articles/sitting-all-day-is-taking-a-toll-on-your-body
 
 
David Wehby, MD, specializes in occupational medicine at Aurora Health Care. He is board certified by the American Board of Family Medicine.
 
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