Is sitting worse than smoking?

Yet another report says that staying seated for hours on end is dangerous. Maybe it's time we take a stand

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 10, 2013 7:40PM (EST)

    (<a href=''>A Master Image</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(A Master Image via Shutterstock)

I have some news for you. Are you sitting down for it? Psych! Because the news is: Don't sit down. Your chair. It's going to smite you.

This is likely not the first time you've heard the warning. On "Rock Center" Thursday, NBC News' Natalie Morales offers the latest take on the story, blowing the lid off America's deadly epidemic of sitting down. "Sitting all day long is literally killing us," says obesity expert Dr. James Levine, who describes exactly what you're probably doing right this moment as "dangerous behavior." And in case you're thinking none of this applies to you because you Zumba, Morales adds, "A trip to the gym, while beneficial, can't undo the damage done all day."

The "Rock Center" report is just the latest in a string of bad news for the Snuggie demographic. Back in April, the New York Times urged readers to "Don't Just Sit There." In it, Gretchen Reynolds revealed the sobering results of a recent study on the hazards of staying seated, including the compelling statistic that "Every single hour of television watched after the age of 25 reduces the viewer’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes. By comparison, smoking a single cigarette reduces life expectancy by about 11 minutes." It turns out that watching "The Bachelor" may actually be worse for you than a pack of Kools. In August, Forbes solemnly wrote of "death by sitting" — and how a rise in sales of stand-up desks suggests the stigma of looking "goofy" is waning in light of health fears. And an October New York Times story, which quickly wound up posted on the Facebook page of every office-working person in America, cited another study that found that in stark contrast with our hunting, gathering and otherwise on-the-go ancestors, "The average adult spends 50 to 70 percent of their time sitting." The consequences for the sedentary are dire – "a 112 percent increase in their relative risk of developing diabetes; a 147 percent increase in their risk for cardiovascular disease; and a 49 percent greater risk of dying prematurely — even if they regularly exercised." Considering that the average child now spends almost six hours a day in front of some form of electronic screen, the imminent potential of the human race to go the way of WALL·E seems increasingly real. But the question is – what are we supposed to do about it?

And, as with any new health trend, it's easy to go off the deep end. The Boston Globe recently noted the inevitable rise in "competitive non-sitting," in a story that featured an anecdote about a woman shamed by her friends for wanting to take a table instead of standing healthfully at a packed bar. Great, something else for people to be smug about while they chug their kombucha.

Frankly, despite the enthusiastic raves of my friends who've made the switch to standing, my own butt is still getting used to last year's darling — the damn yoga ball. Recalibrating my home-office setup – conveniently located in the living room I share with my family – isn't likely in the immediate future, nor is parting with my beloved vintage steelcase tanker and swapping it for a treadmill desk. Not when I feel enough like a hamster on the wheel as it is. But I am going to be more vigilant about getting up for stretching breaks (I use and recommend a simple app called StopRSI for reminders), heeding Gretchen Reynolds' advice on the exponential benefits of "simply breaking up the long, interminable hours of sitting." Similarly, I have made it a goal for the new year to curtail my non-work chair time. After all, how many videos of baby sea otters can one person watch anyway? And I consider it a helpful sign that my local coffee shop/neighborhood second office recently plunked a tall table area in the middle of the room, the better for its clientele who prefer to work vertically.

Ultimately, the dire warnings aren't about the normal human act of sitting -- they're about the fact that modern life enables us to do far more of it than is natural or normal. We didn't evolve this far to fuse our posteriors to the couch. That's why even small changes of habit are good. And even a little shift means taking a stand.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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