Sitting is the new smoking

A topic I’ve covered many times, but it’s so important that it’s worth recalling from time to time.

It sounds like a cheap commercial – “master this one trick to extend your life by up to a dozen years”. Hearing such a thing, most people will shrug and walk away. If such a thing existed, after all, every doctor would talk about it at every appointment, advertising boards would hang in every waiting room. It would be like that, right…?

Well, not exactly.

What really matters in medicine is who can make money from it. That’s why it was during the “swine flu” epidemic that we constantly heard about the necessity of vaccination, and in every single article (I remember it well, the advertising at the time was so intrusive that it was grotesque) a particular drug was mentioned by name. However, no one said a word about washing hands and maintaining hygiene, which protects against the flu as effectively as vaccines, which – at the end of the day – we didn’t get anyway (my country never bought them). So much shouting about a preventive measure that could have been sold and which was not available anyway, while there was a complete lack of information about the free stuff available to everyone. And we are supposed to believe that it was about our health and not about cash for selling vaccines and this drug?

Back to the topic, it all started in the 1950s, when one study

found that London bus drivers had twice the risk of having a heart attack as ticket inspectors. That’s a very significant result, considering that all other factors were identical. Same city, same diet, same age, same company, they even drove the exact same routes. Except that some sat and others stood and walked.

One large-scale study

produced truly shocking results. The group that sat the most during the day had, relative to the one that sat the least:

  • 112% higher risk of diabetes
  • 147% more medical interventions related to heart disease (yes, 2.5 times more!)
  • 90% higher risk of death from heart disease (almost 2 times!)
  • 49% increased overall risk of death

What is perhaps most important – physical activity did not affect risk reduction. If you sit at a desk for 8 hours, even a two-hour jog in the evening won’t fix it.

In fact, no one knows what the mechanism of this phenomenon is. One of the most popular explanations is that the production of one of the enzymes responsible for fat metabolism is stopped. And the worst part is that it is not known whether interrupting inactivity with short periods of activity is enough to prevent the problem. If the above theory is true, theoretically a few minutes of exercise will cause the body to produce the missing substance long afterwards. We don’t know this for sure, nevertheless the rationale is very strong.

As usual, children are most at risk – today’s adults often have habits from before the computer age. My entire childhood consisted of running through forests, old training grounds, ruined buildings, exploring underground, traversing local swamps… no one worried about kids being kidnapped, being torn apart by bears or shot by terrorists. There was no fear-sowing television, everything was somehow more normal, now a mother won’t let her son out alone in Walbrzych (a polish city) because there is a pedophile on the prowl in France. As a result, kids sit – because what are they supposed to do? Walks with parents are a poor alternative. On top of that, the Internet and games are a powerful temptation.

In fact, we have a rather limited choice – either we risk a 1 in 10,000 chance that something will happen to the kids on one of the outings, or we have to accept that in 1 case out of 2 we will raise an invalid. Literally, because a whole childhood spent sitting will put him or her on the brink of death around age 40, and depriving the kid of the opportunity to learn independence and overcome his own weaknesses will make him or her unable to cope with adult life.

What else can be done:

  • limit access to games and the Internet, the child should somehow “deserve” it
  • don’t set a bad example, nothing destroys a parent’s authority more than forbidding something that you yourself do
  • give gifts that encourage activity, i.e. roller skates instead of a new game
  • kids should help in the kitchen, take out the garbage and generally do simple household chores that require movement

And how can adults deal with the problem? And here are a few ways:

  • Hemingway wrote his novels while standing
  • similarly, talking on the phone does not have to be done sitting down
  • it’s better to take a walk to the store than to drive a car
  • perhaps interrupting the forced (e.g., work) time spent sitting with periods of short, vigorous activity (light jogging or jumping jacks, or at least a brisk walk) are enough to break the harmful effects, if possible, this should be done every 30 minutes
  • stairs are healthier than an elevator
  • a coffee or tea break should be a walking break at the same time – at least walking in circles around the office with a cup in hand
  • at the same job, it is better to approach a co-worker and talk than to send an email
  • on the bus it really is better to stand