Sitting is the new smoking, but not all types of sitting are made equal

A new study has bad news for those who binge watch TV.

Photo credit: Kevin Grieve on Unsplash
  • Too much sitting is horrible for you, but not all sitting is the same.
  • A new study finds even short bouts of movement during the day can dramatically reduce your risk of death.
  • While it found light exercise was able to counter some effects of sitting, it found moderate to vigorous workouts did better.

Americans have a sitting problem. A quarter of us are sedentary for eight waking hours a day, which wreaks havoc on our health. It increases our mortality rate, increases your risk of dying from pretty much everything, and leaves us less healthy than if we were to get a little more exercise in.

However, according to a new study, not all sitting is equal, and there are simple things you can do to reduce the adverse effects on your health.

You may want to take this standing up

A new study out of Columbia University, and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, followed 7,999 volunteers over four years and examined how active they were during the day. After that, they were monitored for up to four years to see how their activity levels related to their mortality rates.

It was found that the risk of death could be cut by 17 percent by replacing a mere 30 minutes of sitting with light exercise each day. The benefit doubled when the activity was a little more intense than just walking. Interestingly, they found that these benefits did not require the subject to do all of the exercising at once. Reaching a half hour through short bursts throughout the day was equally effective.

Lead author Dr. Keith Diaz summarized the findings:

"Our findings underscore an important public health message that physical activity of any intensity provides health benefits. If you have a job or lifestyle that involves a lot of sitting, you can lower your risk of early death by moving more often, for as long as you want and as your ability allows — whether that means taking an hour-long high-intensity spin class or choosing lower-intensity activities, like walking."

So, what should I do?

The first answer is that you should sit less. The most significant drops in mortality rates were seen when people spent at least 30 minutes a day on moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, gardening, swimming, or even housework. While you should be getting more than a half hours' worth each day, this is an excellent place to start.

Failing that, you should find ways to work small bouts of light exercise into your day. Even little walks to the coffee machine or a quick stretch every half hour can help. Two minutes of exercise every half hour works out to around 30 minutes of it over an eight-hour workday, an amount that will do you good.

This finding means that different kinds of seated activities can be worse for your health than others. Sitting at your desk at work is often punctuated by these small bits of movement even if you don't plan on them. Vegging out on the sofa watching six hours of television is rarely marked by these short bouts of exercise, excepting when you need to get up to get more snacks — or use the bathroom.

Again, the real takeaway from all of this is that you should get more exercise. The Mayo Clinic says that 30 minutes of moderate exercise is the least you can do and that generally aiming for more is better.

Sitting may be the new smoking, but there is no reason why your desk job should kill you. The findings of this study, while confirming the risks posed by an inactive lifestyle, demonstrate that there are simple ways to correct for inactivity that you can do right now.

Now that I'm done writing this, I think I'll go for a walk. If you've been reading it, I advise you to do the same.

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