Sitting is the “new smoking,” according to Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic who has researched the dangers of a sedentary life for the past 15 years.

Sitting is the “new smoking,” according to Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic who has researched the dangers of a sedentary life for the past 15 years.

A 2013 study of more than 63,000 middle-aged men confirmed that sitting for more than 4 hours a day resulted in a significantly higher rate of chronic disease, regardless of their weight or exercise level. Americans average about 9.5 hours a day just sitting. We sit in the car on the commute to work just to sit at a desk all day, then head back home to relax on the couch watching TV or surfing the web.

How can just sitting harm our health? There are lots of ways, it seems.

It’s estimated that if we just sit for less than 3 hours a day, our life expectancy could increase by 2 years. Just cutting our TV time to less than 2 hours a day can add about a year and a half to our life expectancy. For comparison, smoking decreases the life expectancy of an average man by about 2.5 years.

Too much sitting increases our risk for heart disease. When our muscles don’t move, they burn less fat and our blood flow slows. This allows fatty acids in our blood stream to clot more easily. Inactivity also increases our blood pressure and cholesterol levels, both risk factors for heart disease.

The risks for diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity are significantly increased by inactivity. Our pancreas secretes insulin and if our muscles aren’t being used, they don’t respond. This creates insulin resistance that may result in diabetes. We only burn about 1 calorie a minute while sitting, compared to 3 times that when up walking, so we don’t burn off calories very quickly when we are sedentary.

There is evidence that our risk for colon cancer is increased just from too much sitting. The insulin our pancreas is secreting and muscles are not using encourages cell growth. Movement and exercise helps boost natural antioxidants in our body that help fight cancer causing free radicals.

Our muscles and bones weaken and our posture suffers from sitting too much. Slumping in a chair for hours weakens our abdominal muscles, and contributes to a swayed back, and poor posture. Our hip muscles become shorter and tighter from not moving, resulting in decreased mobility and increased risk for falls. Not to mention the strained necks, sore shoulders and back muscles from sitting all day. We know that weight bearing exercises strengthen our bones; when we are off our feet for most of the day, it can weaken our bones.

The circulation in our legs is compromised from sitting for prolonged times. This can lead to fluid buildup in the legs, swollen ankles, blood clots and varicose veins.

Even our brain is a little slower when we are inactive for too long, causing mental sluggishness and even depression.

The really bad news is that moderate, even vigorous, exercise several times a week isn’t enough to counteract the negative effects from too much sitting. We need to find ways to make every day just a little more active. Following are some ideas to get you started.

Does your day consist of endless meetings? Try making your next one-on-one meeting a walking meeting. Take a stroll and discuss things.

Do you spend a lot of time on the phone? Take your cordless phone on a walk. Or at the very least, pace in your office while you’re on the phone.

Do you often email or call co-workers who are in another part of the building or even just down the hall? Get up and go talk to them, instead of sending a message.

Work in some micro breaks every 20 or 30 minutes. Just stretching, taking some deep breaths or refocusing your eyes from the computer screen can re-energize your brain and body.

Instead of circling the lot for a close parking space, make a commitment to park farther away so you can get in a few extra steps. Take the stairs and walk where you need to go, whenever possible.

Maybe you can rearrange your workstation so everything isn’t quite so convenient. Put the filing cabinet across the room so you have to get up to pull files. Arrange things on your desk so you have to reach and stretch to get them.

If you drink coffee or water all day long, put it in a smaller cup. Then you have to get up more frequently for refills.

If allowed, check into getting a standing desk so you can walk or at least stand while you work. Or, try replacing your chair with an exercise ball.

We average about 5 hours of TV watching each day. Instead of just sitting there, get up and stretch, or do some yoga, Pilates or squats while you watch.


Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.