Is sitting the “new smoking”?

Sitting is the new smoking

It’s a catchy idea yet …

For all the harm they may do, sitting and smoking are quite different.  For one thing there is nothing about the activity of breathing that automatically means you are obliged to breathe in smoke – unless you are one of the millions around the world cooking over dung-fires in poorly ventilated huts.  Smoking tobacco is simply a habit, a social and cultural phenomenon. 

And as far as we know, there is no data suggesting that sitting is addictive.  Any pleasurable activity can become addictive, but set alongside shopping, gambling, eating cheese on toast, eating sugar or taking cocaine, sitting may be one of the less addictive activities known to human kind.  Which can’t be said of everything we do whilst we are sitting.

We all have an innate drive to rest when we can, and sitting is something people have always done, when they could find something to sit on.  Monarchs and Chairmen did best in the chair department for a much of human history, the rest getting the many muscular and lumbar benefits of squatting. 

But clearly for most of human history we had to do lots of things all day long, many of them not particularly “exercise-y”, but falling into a neatly named category called NEAT.  Which turns out to stand for Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis.  Quite.  Probably better just to say that being constantly active is something our bodies evolved to expect. 

NEAT is increasingly recognised as having as much importance in preserving our health as “exercise”.  So when this study appeared in the Lancet in 2012 it spawned the now famous “sitting is as bad a smoking” meme that has run ever since.   It is true that lack of NEAT hastens the onset of disease and hastens our death, but this study is a cautionary tale about the confusing language used to describe exercise, lack of exercise and inactivity. 

Look closely at the paper and you see that the analysis was based on a World Health Organisation definition of “inactivity” that has nothing to do with NEAT.  There is plenty of data showing the health risks of a lack of NEAT, some it really quite old.  But actually the definition used in the Lancet paper might be better described as “lack of exercise” which is an indirect measure of lack of NEAT, but a pretty shakey one.  Other papers are much clearer in their terminology, measuring sedentary time and showing substantially raised risks of diabetes, heart disease and shorter life-spans.. 

So what can we conclude?

Language is tricky.  There are times we  think we know what we mean, but we don’t. 

Sitting, and being physically inactive to the extent many of us do nowadays is harming our health on the same sort of scale as tobacco smoing.  Activity is worth embracing. 

Quitting sitting may be easier in many ways than quitting smoking, as it isn't actually addictive, and more difficult in others, because for instance its hard to envisage standing up in a car. 

Perhaps, as so often, it is best to focus on what we do instead of the thing we don't want, in this case, sitting.  Standing, pottering, lifting, shifting and carrying are arguably even more helpful, and for many easier to achieve, than formal exercise.  We can embrace light house-work and getting up to fetch each other a cuppa as a boon to not just domestic harmony but longevity as well.