SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING: How To Combat This Risk For Disease!

By Marianne Morano, M.S., ACSM, CWC

A sedentary lifestyle has long been classified as a risk factor for disease; however, many believe that if they exercise in addition to long periods of sitting, they are protected.  If you believe this, you are in for a rude awakening as science proves the opposite is true!

Regardless of the type of business, most jobs require a lot of sitting: the commute to and from the office along with lengthy periods of sitting at a computer.  After the long commute home, most evenings are spent on the couch relaxing with television shows.  This poses a problem as the human body is designed to move and sitting for extended time causes the body to shut down at the metabolic level.  Circulation slows; you burn less fat and blood sugar, increasing your risk for heart disease and diabetes.


A new study from Harvard states that sitting may be as hazardous to health as smoking, and that a sedentary lifestyle is the cause of 1 in 10 deaths worldwide.  33 countries were part of the study in 2008 as researchers concluded that the “couch potato syndrome” accounts for 5.3 million deaths per year, more than the 5 million lives lost annually due to smoking.  Heart disease, breast and colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes were the main causes of death.

Dr. James Levine, director of Mayo Clinic – Arizona State University Obesity Solutions and inventor of the treadmill desk studied the deleterious effects of increasing sedentary lifestyles for years, coined the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking,’ and summed up his research by saying, “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting.  We are sitting ourselves to death.”

Levine, among many researchers have found evidence supporting the fact that prolonged sitting increases the risk of developing various types of cancer, obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  In addition, sitting reduces circulation, causes fuzzy thinking, depression and loss of muscle and bone strength.

Studies show that the side effects of long-term sitting are irreversible, similar to smoking.  Clearly this should raise a red flag to minimize the risk by limiting the amount of time we spend sitting each day.

A study from the Journal of National Cancer Institute assessed the relationship between television viewing, recreational sitting, occupational sitting and total sitting time with the risk of developing various cancers.

43 separate studies among over 4 million participants concluded that the risk is higher for colon, endometrial and lung cancer in those with the highest level of sedentary behavior. In addition, heavy sedentary lifestyles has an impact on cancer even among those who also exercise, leading researchers to determine that limiting time spent sedentary may play a role in preventing cancer.  Separate studies link long-term sitting with developing breast cancer.

A study from the American Journal of Epidemiology studied over 50,00 men and over 65,000 women found that those sitting for more than six hours a day died earlier than those sitting for less than 3 hours a day.  “Associations were strongest for cardiovascular disease mortality.  The time spent sitting was independently associated with total mortality, regardless of physical activity level,” the study says.


Dr. Andrew Weil believes to unlearn old habits and develop new healthy habits, spend more time with the people who practice the habits you want.  He states that your friends and family are powerful influences on your behavior and if you want to be a habitual exerciser, you need to keep company with those who regularly enjoy exercising.

Dr. James Levine suggests to Get NEAT that stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis and includes stretching, turning and bending.  He recommends 10 minutes of NEAT each hour throughout the day.  This does not require a lot of time or money for a gym and may be done anywhere.

Exercise Physiologists believe you should get moving often with small goals.  Something as simple as stretching major muscle groups 5 or 6 times throughout the day will make a difference.  Getting one hour of exercise a day is great; however, that still leaves a lot of hours left sitting.  In addition to exercising, incorporate a whole day approach to activity.  Here are some examples:

  • Set an alarm on your smartphone to remind you to get up and move every hour
  • Create a screen saver that reminds you to stand up and stretch
  • Ask for a standing desk at work
  • Send documents to a printer on the other side of the room or different floor
  • Go for a walk during lunch break
  • Take the stairs regularly throughout the day, park the car further from the office building
  • Walk down the hall to ask a colleague a question instead of emailing or calling them
  • Stand while on the phone or in meetings
  • Consider a treadmill desk for walk and talk meetings
  • Have trash cans away from the desk to encourage you to get up and walk to throw out garbage
  • Have walk and talk meetings instead of using a conference room
  • Take a walk break in the afternoon to help focus, productivity and reduce being tired by 5pm
  • Move while commuting by standing on a bus or train, by getting off at an earlier stop and walking, or by moving legs and arms while stuck in traffic or at stoplights
  •  Move during commercial breaks while watching TV
  • Do boring tasks at home such as bill paying while standing
  • Pace around your house while talking on the phone
  • Play with your kids
  • Walk your dog regularly
  • Walk up and down steps at home frequently
  • Dance to music while cooking
  • Use a push mower instead of a riding mower
  • Do a little housework each day and incorporate lunges and squats as you clean, for example.
  • Plan activity every weekend, take active vacations

These are but a few of the many examples of how to incorporate activity as part of your day.  As with any new habit, perfect practice makes perfect.  Try a few of these tips each day, and notice how much better you feel and how more productive you are. 

Try this 3 minute exercise routine that can be done anywhere with no equipment: 10 half-squats, 10 wall or desk push ups, 10 jumping or stepping jacks, 30 seconds of marching in place, 10 half lunges, 10 arm circles forward, 10 arm circles backward, 30 seconds of shadow boxing.  Finish with a couple of minutes of stretching for a total of 5 minutes of movement.

Don’t have five minutes, choose fewer exercises or do fewer repetitions per exercise for an even quicker session.  The idea is to move, and the types of movement you can choose each day are endless.  Be creative and be sure to plan moving each day to ensure success.  Setting a timer is a great way to remember to get up and move.

As early as the 1800’s people were aware of the deleterious effects of long term sitting and yet over the years we have increasingly added hours each day spent sitting.

 “By too much sitting still the body becomes unhealthy; and soon the mind. This is nature's law.”

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hyperion, A Romance, 1839~


Marianne E. Morano, M.S., ACSM, CWC serves on Cancer Schmancer's Medical Advisory Board. She is a Clinical Exercise Physiologist and the CEO and Founder of Fit or WHAT, Inc. Her mission is to empower clients and the community to achieve their personal best through healthy lifestyle programs, creating longevity and quality of life.