Sitting Is the New Smoking, Especially at Work

By Katharine Paljug  @kpaljug
May 03, 2017

Sitting is the new smoking, especially when you sit at your desk too much, but is standing while you work any better? Here’s what you need to know.

How many hours a day do you spend sitting at work?

If you have a desk job, the number is likely close to eight hours a day. You are probably also sitting at meetings, sitting at lunch, and sitting on your commute to and from work. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that among American adults, about 58 percent of non-sleeping time was spent in sedentary activities, such as sitting at a computer, sitting at a desk, or watching television. Only 3 percent, by contrast, was spent exercising.

All that sitting may be negatively impacting your health. It’s pretty safe to say that sitting is the new smoking.


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The health effects of sitting too long

A study published in early 2015 reviewed the research of multiple teams to look for a common thread about the effects sitting can have on workers’ health. The results were not positive: researchers found that too much sitting was linked to increased rates of diabetes, heart disease, hospitalization, and overall mortality among adults.

"More than one half of an average person's day is spent being sedentary — sitting, watching television, or working at a computer," David Alter, PhD, a researcher at the University Health Network in Toronto and one of the study’s lead authors, said in a statement.

In many ways, the results of the review confirmed a variety of earlier research. One study published in 2008 found that sedentary behavior was linked to poor cardiovascular and metabolic health, even if participants were meeting recommended levels of physical activity outside of the time when they were sitting. Another study from 2012 found similar results: sitting for prolonged periods of time was associated for premature death, even among people who engaged in regular exercise during other parts of the day.

Does standing at work help?

After research about the dangers of too much sitting was released, many businesses adopted interventions created to help workers sit less. One of the most popular ones was the “sit-to-stand” desk set up, which allows workers to vary the height of their desk so they can move between sitting and standing. Early research into the benefits of standing desks found that they did indeed reduce the amount of time workers spent sitting at their desks, and some participants reported improvements in neck and shoulder discomfort.

However, standing for prolonged periods of time can cause severe pain, putting strain on your joints, lower back, knees, and feet without providing any more movement than sitting does. The question of sitting versus standing was complicated by further research, published at the end of 2015, which found that sitting could not be directly blamed for negative health outcomes and increased premature mortality.

How to sit less at work and improve your health

The problem, doctors have begun to agree, is that desk work results in long periods of time when workers are not moving, regardless of whether they are sitting or standing. New research has begun to emphasize the importance of breaking up sedentary time with periods of physical activity in addition to structured exercise time outside of work. These breaks, studies have found, cause a decline in the negative effects of too much sitting at work.  

If you want to avoid the negative impact of too much inactivity, introduce opportunities for movement throughout your day. Try getting up and stretching every 30 minutes, walking around the building, or doing a short exercise routine in your office. Even these small changes will help break up extended periods of sitting and have a positive effect on your health.


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April 08, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN