Why Scientists Are Saying Sitting is the New Smoking

We’ve heard the warnings that smoking is detrimental to our health. The disturbing public service announcements that contain shocking images of what it does to your body can be seen in commercials, magazines, and on billboards.

But why are scientists saying sitting is just as bad as smoking? How can you equate something as harmless as spending time on your duff to inhaling smoke and tobacco on purpose?

The average American spends more than eight hours sitting during the day, which over time, can lead to serious medical conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. Even if you are one of the lucky ones that sleep eight hours a night, that means, on average, you could be “resting” 16 hours a day, and that’s not a good thing.

The empirical evidence

A review of 43 studies analyzing the associations between sedentary behavior and serious medical conditions found that the people who reported sitting for more hours of the day had a 24% greater chance of developing colon cancer, 32% chance higher risk of endometrial cancer, and a 21% higher risk of lung cancer, no matter how much they exercised.

It comes down to two words (well, one word and an acronym): Active and N.E.A.T.

Active and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (N.E.A.T.)

When individuals move, the amount of energy used in that movement falls into one of two categories: active or non-exercise active thermogenesis (N.E.A.T).

“Active” is self-explanatory, it means you have moved enough to break a sweat and burned a significant number of calories.

“N.E.A.T.” is the energy used any other time you move. For example, you use N.E.A.T energy when you pick up around the house, walk to the bathroom, or go grocery shopping. You’re hopefully not sweating profusely to perform these tasks, but your body still requires energy to accomplish each one.

In these studies, scientists claim the average American person sits far too much relying on this N.E.A.T. energy to fulfill daily tasks while their active energy levels pale in comparison.

When this happens, your body shuts down the calorie-burning operation that results from active movement, and instead, goes into maintenance mode using N.E.A.T. to store calories as fat.  

This stored fat transforms into extra weight which we all know can lead to a whole host of health problems. The goal is to use more active energy during the day, keeping your N.E.A.T. in check, so your body burns calories rather than storing them as fat.  

Check your current habits

By now, you may be doing your own active versus N.E.A.T. energy calculation in your head to better understand if you are in a high-risk category for some of the conditions mentioned.

Before your anxious thoughts get your heart rate pumping, take a breath.

If you want to understand your activity level, buy a smartwatch or fitness tracker like a Fitbit. These will tell you how many steps you’ve taken during the day, monitor your heart rate, and even break down how many active versus resting (or N.E.A.T.) calories you’ve burned during the day.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on a device, and if you don’t like wearing a watch, there are smartphone applications that will record and track this same kind of information. It may not break down your calories for you, but you’ll gain some useful insight.

If you are pleased with your active movement numbers, keep it up! If the opposite is true, these devices and applications can help monitor your movement so you can set goals and track your progress over time.  

Let’s get moving

If you have found that you are indeed a “sitter,” there are ways to improve your active-to-N.E.A.T. ratio without spending a fortune or losing any sleep.

  • Get Up and Move During Your Workday

Sounds silly, right? The easiest way to better your health is to move. While you might be at work, there are times you can get up and walk around. When you move, your body responds by burning those calories instead of working to store them as fat. So, the next time you have the option of sending an email or having a conversation with your colleague, go for a stroll.

  • Stand in the Place Where You Work

Studies agree that standing is better for your health, so if your workspace allows you to stand, it’s time to get up. If you can sell your boss on the idea, a standing desk is a great option!  

  • Aim for Movement Every Hour

Since expending active energy is the goal, commit to moving at least once per hour. A great reminder to move is regular bathroom visits caused by an increase in water intake. In other words, drink more water! It’s good for you and can help stave off afternoon hunger pangs and the empty calories that come with snacking. It will also give you a viable excuse to dash off now and again.

Final thoughts

James Levine of the Mayo Clinic is the doctor responsible for the “sitting is the new smoking” mantra. He is a world authority on obesity and for decades has helped people live healthier lives.

“At this point in time, today, we have enough information to share with individuals, companies, schools and cities that we need to get people up off their bottoms, on their legs and off their chairs. That information is sure. And I think there’s a lot more research to be done, but we do not need to wait a second longer.” – Dr. James Levine

It’s clear that more movement in our daily lives is essential. Should we stand instead of sit whenever possible if doctors say it’s a good thing? Absolutely. With that being said, it’s time to get moving.