Young businessman reading newspaper Sitting and Your Health

If you have been following the news on sitting and your health lately, you might feel a little confused. Is sitting the new smoking? Or not so much?

Research has been building for a few years now that shows a link between prolonged sitting time and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and all-cause death (read more here and here).

This has spawned some dramatic headlines warning us of the dangers of sitting. This got some of us off our butts and the standing/treadmill desk industry was born.

Now, over the last few months, the headlines have turned. New research is out that tells us sitting may not be as bad as we thought, and besides, if you stand more at work, you’ll probably just sit more at home.

So, where does that leave us?

First let’s put things into perspective. One research paper doesn’t usually change the world (or the practice of medicine). Research is sometimes flawed or missing pieces of the puzzle. Your doctor knows this and that is why she will insist on more evidence before making recommendations. When your doctor tells you to stop smoking, for example, this is based on years of research and many many studies that have proven its dangers.

The same is not necessarily true of the headline makers; the journalists and editors, who’s main goal is to get you to pick up and buy their publication, or click on their link. That is why coffee is good for you one week and bad the next. Look closer and the research they are basing their claims on, is likely not quite so conclusive.

Let’s face it, catchy headlines get attention and many of us don’t make it past the headline. So, if we read “Sitting is the New Smoking,” we may conclude that sitting is bad across the board. Then, when the headline sings “Sitting Not so Bad After All” then we heave a sigh of relief and plop back down on our butts. At a distance these problems seem simple but they rarely are.

Let’s dig a little deeper, then, into the latest research on sitting and health.

In August, 2015 a group out of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom came out with a study on sitting and death rates. They looked at more than 5,000 people over the course of 16 years and found that increased sitting time was NOT associated with all-cause death rates. In other words, the people who sat more, whether at work or at home, watching TV or not, did not die sooner from any cause.

It is tempting to take these findings and conclude that sitting isn’t so bad after all. But, hang on a minute. What about quality of life?

For many years, the evidence has built a strong case that links prolonged sitting with a number of health problems that can have a big impact on quality of life, even if they don’t kill you. Here are a few:

  • Colon, breast and endometrial cancers
  • Muscle wasting and problems with posture
  • Strained neck
  • Sore shoulders
  • Herniated discs
  • Poor circulation (swelling, varicose veins and blood clots)
  • Bone loss and osteoporosis
  • Decreased brain function

In other words, death is not the only factor to consider. Furthermore, while the Exeter study may be a good one, it does not negate all the research that has come before it.

OK, so, sitting still isn’t so good for us. What can we do about it?

To answer that question, I’ll turn to another recent study. A group in Denmark published a multi-paper review in October, 2015 showing the benefits of breaking up sitting time. Their review showed clear positive effects of taking breaks that included light-intensity walking and standing.

So, get up once in a while. Walk around. Do a few light exercises. It certainly won’t hurt. What CAN hurt, though, is basing your health choices on headlines alone. Always check with your doctor, she’ll give you the real scoop.

Photo Credits © bokan via Dollar Photo Club