The short answer to the question whether sitting is the new smoking is– No.
Studies conclusively show that while both sitting for long durations and smoking are harmful, smoking is a great deal, much worse.
Researchers from Canada, the US and Australia said that while excessive sitting (more than 8 hours a day) increases the risk of premature death and some chronic diseases by 10-20%, it is nowhere close to smoking. Smoking increases the risk of premature death from any cause by 180%. The findings published in American Journal of Public Health in 2018, finally put to rest the myth that got popular in media and health circles in recent years.
Hence, it is not fair to compare a sedentary lifestyle with smoking, but it is important to know that sitting has many harmful effects on the body.
Sitting increases risk for diabetes, impacts heart
Sitting for long, harms your heart and increases risk for diabetes. A study found that men who watched more than 23 hours of TV a week, had a 64% higher chance of suffering a heart disease compared to those who watched only 11 hours of TV a week.
There is more, a systematic review and meta-analysis of 18 studies found sitting increased the risk for Type 2 Diabetes by 112%, increased the risk for heart attack and stroke by 147%, and risk of death due to heart problems by 90%.
Increases risk for Cancers
Increased sitting increases the risk for cancer. A 2020 study published in JAMA oncology of over 8000 individuals showed that sitting increased the risk of death by cancer by 13%. It further showed that those who are extremely sedentary had as much as 80% more risk of dying by cancer than those who sit the least.
Weakens your muscles
When we sit for the whole day, the muscles in the lower body get weak increasing the chance of injury and pain. For example, sitting causes the hip flexor muscles to shorten, causing lower back pain and difficulty in mobility. Similarly, when we sit at work, we slouch forward to look at the screen that causes weakening of the chest muscles.
Sedentary behaviour affects the body’s ability to process fat. It reduces the production of lipoprotein lipase, the enzyme that helps break down fat. This causes the body to store fat instead of burning it.
What can you do?
Even a little exercise helps counter it: The JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) study that showed sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk for cancer also showed that for individuals that exercised for 30 minutes instead of sitting, the risk of dying from cancer fell by 31%. Even if they substituted exercising with gentle strolling, housework, gardening or light-intensity activity, the risk of dying from cancer fell by 8%.
Another research showed that 60-75 minutes of moderate–vigorous intensity activity everyday was necessary to counter all the harms of sitting. Given how difficult it is to do half an hour of activity every day, it is important to keep yourself active throughout the day rather than relying on exercising alone.
Take breaks: There is evidence that taking frequent breaks (once every 30-40 minutes) helps. A 2017 study shows walking between prolonged sitting or light exercise helps reduce inflammation that can lead to heart problems and increase good cholesterol. Breaking your posture also improves blood circulation and prevents weakening of muscles.
Find reasons to move: One way to prevent prolonged sitting is by moving more while working and during leisure. This means walking up to your colleague for a chat instead of sending an email, taking a short walk break during lunch break or teatime, having standing meetings and stretching in your seat whenever time permits. When you are at home, it is important to not spend all the time watching TV, lounging, or scrolling your phone–play with your kids, play a sport, stroll a garden, take walks, and help around the house to get in more activity.
Don’t forget the evils of smoking
Let us again remind you that sitting may be harmful, but smoking is much worse. While smoking is becoming unpopular in rich countries, 80% of smokers today are from low and middle income countries where it is expected to kill half of the smokers prematurely. Those who smoke have a doubled risk of dying from any cancer and heart disease and they have 23 times more chance of getting lung cancer than non-smokers. Smoking not only impacts those who smoke but also has a harmful impact on those around them through second hand smoke.
So, quitting smoking and getting more activity throughout the day could be the kindest thing you can do to your body.