A few years back, this catchy phrase bubbled to the surface after a University of Missouri scientist equated sitting with smoking and – ever since – this slogan of sorts has achieved increasing traction in cubicles from coast to coast.
Beyond merely being memorable, “sitting is the new smoking” is backed by a growing body of research indicating that sitting throughout the day – which millions of Americans do at work – can lead to a variety of health problems; specifically, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Studies also have shown that the negative impact of prolonged sitting isn’t counteracted by regular exercise. In the wake of these findings, a new piece of office furniture – the stand-up desk – has morphed from oddity to often-requested.
Benefits of Taking a Stand
Experts contend that office workers need to switch their default settings when it comes to sitting versus standing. An endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic puts it this way: “The default has become to sit. We need the default to be standing.” That doesn’t mean every working hour must be spent standing; however, it’s recommended that you spend much of your workday upright or otherwise moving.
The benefits of using a stand-up desk include:
- Burning calories – Although parking yourself in a chair feels comfy, doing so comes at a cost in terms of calories. In fact, a recent study concluded that standers burn – on average – 50 more calories per hour than their seated counterparts.
- Preventing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes – Scientists have found that prolonged sitting can reduce the body’s ability to effectively regulate blood glucose levels. This can result in metabolic syndrome – a condition that significantly increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Other studies have similarly discovered that those who sit for extended periods have significantly higher levels of fasting blood glucose – an indication that their cells have become less responsive to insulin.
- Curbing cardiovascular disease – On this front, evidence that sitting negatively impacts the cardiovascular system stretches back to the 1950s, when British researchers found that London bus drivers (who sit) had a higher incidence of heart attacks than bus conductors (who stand). More recently, scientists have determined that adults who spend two more hours per day sitting have a 125-percent-increased risk of developing health problems related to cardiovascular disease.
Additional studies have concluded that men who spend more than five hours per day sitting outside of work – and who also exercise infrequently – are at twice the risk of heart failure than those who exercise often and sit fewer than two hours daily when not at work. Even when the researchers controlled for the amount of exercise, those who sit excessively were still 34 percent more likely to develop heart failure compared to those who logged more hours standing or moving.
- Lowering risk of cancer – Several studies have linked extended periods of sitting with a higher risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, endometrial cancer, and ovarian cancer. While additional research is needed to specifically determine why sitting increases cancer risk, scientists have identified several biomarkers – such as C-reactive protein – that are present in higher levels among those who spend much of their time sitting, and these biomarkers may play a role in cancer taking root.
- Living longer – A multi-year study conducted by the American Cancer Society found that men who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was roughly 20- percent higher than men who sat for three hours or less. On the female side of the equation, death rates for women who sat for more than six hours a day was about 40-percent higher. Further, a 2012 study concluded that if Americans reduced the time spent sitting to three hours per day, life expectancy would increase by two years.
Although “sitting is the new smoking” strikes an over-the-top chord, there appears to be little debate that standing more frequently than sitting delivers worthwhile health benefits.