Is Sitting Really The New Smoking?

Dr. Matthew Lieber weighs in on the "panic."

You've likely read the headlines, warnings and alarms that have told us that sitting has now been linked to serious health risks.

Well, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers famously told a panicked Packer football nation after their second loss in 2014, "R-E-L-A-X! We are going to be okay." So, what is the panic all about? What is at the heart of all these blogs, posts and articles that suggest we're in the middle of a significant and worsening health crisis? Where did this all start? And, what is at the heart of promoting the wave of advice telling us we all need a ball chair, that ridiculously expensive "ergonomic" wonder chair, treadmill desk, tush support, lumbar wedge or a standing desk with a new futuristic workstation?

It was Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic who first posed the question in 1999: "Why do some people who consume the same amount of food as others, gain weight?" 

His study essentially added 1,000 calories per day to a group of people and — surprise-surprise — some people gained weight while others didn't. Dr. Levine surmised that his research would find some biological marker acting as a differentiating agent between the two groups. After several years of trials, he failed to find this magical marker. 

Along the way, though, he noticed something curious. When he electronically measured daily movement patterns of the participants, those who moved more gained less weight. They were not necessarily exercising more, but were more active with the smaller movements of daily life, measured by fidgeting, getting up and down more regularly from sitting, doing chores, etc. The final word from the study claimed that those who sat still greater than two hours per day above the mean were at a higher risk for weight gain than those who didn't. The conclusion was that the more sedentary a person was, the more likely they were to gain weight and therefore be at a higher risk for some health conditions. Shocking. Our healthcare research dollars at work.

I recently googled "Sitting is the New Smoking" and got 6.3 million hits, 2.3 million news articles, 2.5 million videos, and thousands of images, memes and cartoons, most of which make claims that you are going to die from sitting. I browsed images of skulls as chairs, the poison icon, the "x'd-out" image, and even saw some made up conditions such as the "office syndrome" clicking through the menagerie. According to some of these scary articles and posts, you are at a 50 percent greater risk of mortality (whatever that means), a 90 percent greater risk for heart disease, as well as a 100 percent increase in diabetes. You'll get kidney disease, varicose veins, sciatica, breast cancer in women, colon cancer in men, all putting us $24 billion in the hole every year in healthcare costs. Oh my! 

Who started this whole sitting thing? And how did we not know this was killing us!? Well, I have only one word for all of you who are still reading: R-E-L-A-X.


Dr. Matthew Lieber Cory Steiner 

Even if I was not a healthcare provider, I would be familiar with the significant and serious risks of obesity, as I am sure you are. There is no debate that we are (as a nation, and perhaps a planet) struggling with our weight. But the fundamental question is whether or not sitting is killing us. And the answer is clearly no. There is no inherent risk to sitting. It is not dangerous and it is not to be avoided. 

So, why all the hubbub? How did we get from one clearly limited impact research article to where we are today? Why are there so many articles now saying that we are all doomed? 

It's like many things I have seen over time. A research study gets picked up by a "news site" and the marketing and financial-minded pounce on it as a potential new market, searching out new prospects to buy into the hype. We all would like to be healthier, fitter, live longer, and live pain-free. So, it begins quietly and escalates as the marketplace fills up with ads and scare tactics to move products aimed at addressing these concerns, continuing until we have been satiated. 

What is the answer then? How do we avoid the consequences of prolonged sitting? Should we get that fancy ball chair? Should we get that new cool looking standing station? Should we get that latest gadget that promises to be the final solution? 

In my opinion, no. There is only one 'magic pill' for this problem. Move.
Move throughout the day. Move in your seat. Change sitting positions. Get up frequently from your desk, your couch, your car. That will solve the sitting is the new smoking "panic" without any additional gadgets or gimmicks that, especially those that will damage your bottom line and not necessarily help your bottom.

Dr. Matthew Lieber is a chiropractor in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.

Cover photo: Shutterstock / Zivica Kerkez.

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