It’s quite likely you’ve heard the saying “sitting is the new smoking”. This interesting concept, that’s made some notable headlines like the Globe and Mail and Forbes magazine, has been a popular subject the past few years. While it’s generally good advice, there are many other factors that can come into play.
The underlying principle is that prolonged periods of sitting decreases your energy expenditure (burning fewer calories throughout the day) which over time can have various consequences, similar to those associated to smoking. If you’re one of many who sits for long periods of time on a daily basis (sitting for several hours at a time for a total of more than 8 hours a day), research has shown that you may be at higher risk of developing conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, amongst other. (1). This is in addition to the increased risk of developing back and neck pain, as well as general stiffness.
Various strategies have been proposed to counter these risks, such as using a standing desk at work, taking regular breaks to get up from your desk, or even exercising more outside of work. Let’s take a minute to discuss how each of these strategies could benefit you.
- Standing desk: The idea behind this is that you would burn more calories by standing than you would sitting. While it’s technically true, it hasn't been shown to dramatically increase energy expenditure. Or at least, not enough to offset the risks. What’s more, by standing more throughout the day you might be convincing yourself to skip that exercise session you planned later, which would be more beneficial to your overall health. Another concern would be that people may be “too motivated” and start using the standing desk for many hours at a time. If you’re not used to standing for prolonged periods, this could lead to foot pain or injuries, such as plantar fasciitis. We recommend using a standing desk as a way to change positions and postures frequently, switching between sitting and standing throughout the day.
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- Regular breaks from sitting: Similar to the idea of a standing desk, this strategy suggests that you regularly break up your time spent sitting and get up to move around a bit. It can be something as simple as taking a short walk around the office or to the water fountain.
- Exercising outside of work: Out of these three proposed strategies, this one is most likely to have a real impact on your overall health. Research has shown that workers who frequently exercise outside of work offset the risks associated with prolonged sitting (2). This study recommended 60 to 75 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per day in order to receive these benefits. Moderate exercises include things like fast walking, light jogging, and cycling; essentially anything that makes you slightly out of breath. If you’re walking to and from work, you’re already chipping away at it!
While this new concept has important impacts on our health, it’s important to know how to tackle it best. It’s no surprise that regular exercise wins this battle, but that’s not to say that other strategies (standing desk, regular breaks) aren't good for you, your back, and your health!
1. Edward R. Laskowski, M. (2018, May 08). Sitting risks: How harmful is too much sitting? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/sitting/faq-20058005
2. Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. Ekelund, Ulf et al. The Lancet , Volume 388 , Issue 10051 , 1302 - 1310