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Is sitting the new smoking? Why 'sedentary behaviour' is a health habit worth kicking

Getting active is a New Year's resolution for many

Stock image of woman sitting at desk with laptop
Francesca Shillcock
Senior Features Writer
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Although setting – and sticking to – New Year's resolutions can feel daunting to some, for others it's a great opportunity to incorporate new routines and healthy habits into your lifestyle. Many trends seem to get recycled each year such as going vegan or cutting alcohol, but let us pose an arguably simple resolution: move more.

During the COVID lockdown years (apologies for the reminder) millions merged from busy jobs with a five-day commute to working from home and, even since then, many have continued to do so, or at least in a hybrid capacity.

Of course, not all jobs are office/desk-based, but those that are often result in people sitting at computers for hours on end. Productivity might rise, but at what cost? A sedentary lifestyle doesn't only mean being chained to a desk for eight hours a day, but prolonged periods of time without any movement – even in short bursts – can have detrimental effects on our health which has led many studies, including this one from Dr. James Levine from Mayo Clinic, branding it "the new smoking".

Stock image showing woman sitting at desk with laptop, eyes closed© Alamy
Stock image showing woman sitting at desk with laptop, eyes closed

Does it sound extreme? A little. But we spoke to experts to unpick the claim and decipher just how bad a sedentary lifestyle can be for our health. What's more, a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that those who sit for "more than six hours a day had a significantly higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease compared to those who sat less."

But, there's good news because (spoiler alert) it can very easily be overcome...

Is sitting really the new smoking? The experts give their say…

The question doesn't have a simple yes or no answer. However, it's known that a sedentary lifestyle over a prolonged period can cause many of the same diseases associated with smoking. Dr. Alka Patel is a GP & longevity expert who told HELLO! that the analogy is "a catchy public health slogan" that has been coined in recent years and therefore isn't a direct comparison. However, she did state that it "nonetheless underscores the significant health risks associated with prolonged sitting."

Dr. Alka continued: "Our body's metabolism slows down, affecting our ability to regulate blood sugar and metabolise fats efficiently. a musculoskeletal perspective, prolonged sitting can lead to muscle degeneration, particularly in the lower body, and increase the risk of osteoporosis due to decreased bone density. Sitting, especially with poor posture, can lead to chronic back pain and joint stiffness. Simply put, the body is designed to move, so move it we must!"

Dr. Tamara Alireza, a Functional Medicine Specialist at Skinfluencer with an MSc from University College London, agrees.

She told HELLO!: "Research has shown that a sedentary lifestyle results in negative effects on the body, similar to those associated with smoking, and results in higher all-cause mortality. It has been estimated to cause a third of deaths from coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke and type 2 diabetes. It is a key factor in the development of chronic diseases from problems in the cardiovascular system and metabolic disorders."

Dr. Tamara added: "Prolonged physical inactivity is associated with systemic inflammation, while muscle contraction triggers an anti-inflammatory response, reducing the likelihood of many chronic disorders in various parts of the body."

What other effects can a sedentary lifestyle have?

Away from the physical effects of sitting for prolonged periods of time, a sedentary lifestyle can have a bad impact on our mental health. Dr. Alka also told HELLO!: "Sedentary behaviour increases the risk of depression and anxiety. Prolonged inactivity may increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in older adults."

Dr Tamara agrees: "Physical activity results in serotonin release, which boosts mood. What's more, exercise can boost the number and diversity of beneficial microbes in the gut, improving host health, while decreasing mental health disorders."

MORE: 5 surprising ways quitting drinking made me happier 

MORE: I'm a nutritionist and this is how to reset your diet for a healthier 2024

Cropped view of woman bending leg and stretching before exercise© Alamy

What's the best way to combat sedentary behaviour?

If it sounds daunting then the question is, what do we do about it? Millions of us have little choice but to sit at a desk for hours a day. But, that doesn't mean we can't move around in what experts call "movement bites." There are many easy and simple ways of incorporating more of these into daily life.

Many smartwatches and fitness trackers cleverly have notification pop-ups every hour instructing you to stand for at least ten minutes. If you don't have such a device, set an alarm on your phone or on a manual timer. Every hour, a bit of movement will do wonders even if it's only for a few moments.

Jogging and running are fitness recreations© Alamy
Experts say movement leads to prolonged health

Dr Tamara also advised us: "The overall goal is for regular movement, this doesn't have to be a daunting task requiring gym membership but can be added in wherever you can. A desk job can be supported by changing the chair to a Swiss ball, for example.

"Use the bathroom on a different floor and take the stairs to get there. Take a phone call standing up at your desk; do some calf raises while getting some tea. Get off the bus or tube one stop early if you have the time and walk the rest of the way. Take lunch in the café or outside, instead of at your desk, so you have to walk a little to get there.

"It has even been shown that for desk jobs requiring long hours sitting, lower limb heating with pads, fidgeting in your chair, and even keeping your legs straightened (prolonged leg bending causes impaired function) can preserve vascular function. Aim for a goal of 10,000 steps a day, but any increase in movement is beneficial." 

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