Why is sitting often called the “new smoking” and how can you protect your health in 2024?
If your chosen career means you work at a desk, there’s a good chance you spend a lot of your time sitting down.
Indeed, according to Workplace Insight, 81% of UK office workers sit at their desks for between four and nine hours each day. That equates to 67 days of being entirely sedentary every year.
While this may sound harmless, research suggests that chronic sitting could lead to poorer health in a number of areas. In fact, you may have seen sitting described as the “new smoking” as a result of the consequences it can have for your wellbeing.
This might well be an overly dramatic description – the potential health consequences of excessive smoking still outweigh those of sitting. And, when new health trends and claims emerge, it’s often worth taking them with a pinch of salt.
That said, there’s still a significant amount of evidence that links sitting and a sedentary lifestyle with a range of serious health conditions.
So, read on to find out why sitting could be detrimental to your health, and a few simple methods that could help you avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
A sedentary lifestyle could increase your risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia
The reason that chronic sitting has come under fire is because studies have identified an association between being sedentary and serious conditions such as diabetes and dementia.
The NHS says that studies show a link between inactivity and obesity, which can lead to type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and early death.
This is supported by Dylan Thompson, a professor of human physiology, who explained in an interview with the Guardian that sitting increases your risk of diabetes because you can’t properly dispose of the glucose that gets into your blood after eating.
Aside from physical ailments, research reported by the Independent also found a link between sedentary behaviours and dementia, with those who sit more during the day having a greater risk of being diagnosed with the disease.
Perhaps even more worryingly, the Independent also reported further research showing that being sedentary could make you age faster. The study assessed people who sit down for 10 hours or more a day without regular exercise and found that their cells would age prematurely compared to those who are less sedentary.
It’s important to be aware that, as the NHS notes, these studies only show an association between sitting and these conditions, rather than a direct cause.
Regardless, the current evidence does indicate that the time you spend sitting at your desk could increase your risk of severe health problems.
Finding ways to move more can help offset time spent sitting
Fortunately, unlike smoking, it is possible to prevent the negative effects of being sedentary by offsetting this time with exercise.
As professor Thompson explained to the Guardian: “The damage caused by smoking can’t be offset. But a moderate level of physical activity can offset high levels of sitting.”
With this in mind, read on to find out a few ways to move more so you can offset time sat at your desk.
Aim for 10,000 steps a day
The oft-touted target of 10,000 steps was initially arbitrary, as it was invented by a pedometer company. Yet, as Harvard University paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman told the Guardian in September: “Plenty of studies have shown that steps a day is a reasonable way of measuring physical activity.
“As you increase your step count, you reap increased benefits, but it tails off between about 8,000 and 10,000.”
This could make it an effective target to help you ensure that you’re getting some active time up and away from your desk.
In general, it takes around 10 minutes to walk 1,000 steps, meaning 10,000 steps will take roughly an hour and 40 minutes. So, if you can go for one longer walk before work and a shorter, 40-minute walk afterwards, you could help to reduce the negative effects associated with prolonged sitting.
Exercise for 20-25 minutes a day
If taking the best part of two hours to walk 10,000 steps is too much of a time constraint for you, then you may be relieved to hear that you can achieve similar results with just 25 minutes of exercise.
According to research reported on by the Independent, 20 to 25 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity can eliminate the risk of high amounts of sedentary time.
That means you may be able to offset the hours you spend sitting by going to the gym at lunchtime or jogging for half an hour after work.
This is echoed by professor Thompson, who was involved with setting physical activity guidelines alongside the chief medical officer in 2018.
They originally set this at 150 minutes of activity a week, around the same as what the study reported in the Independent found to work.
So, you may be able to undo the effects of a sedentary lifestyle faster than you think.
Get a standing desk
As well as offsetting your sitting, you could consider reducing sedentary time by getting a standing desk to work at.
Standing helps you burn a few extra calories compared to sitting – around 15 to 30 more across three hours, Healthline reports. It can also have benefits for your back and other muscles, giving you a chance to move around during the day.
These gains are certainly marginal. But, if you know you’re going to be at your desk all day for the foreseeable future, a standing desk could be a sensible investment.
You could even go one step further and get an under-desk treadmill, a small flat treadmill that allows you to walk on the same spot while you work at your standing desk.
That way, you can reap the benefits of using a standing desk, while also getting some of your 10,000 steps in.
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