A sign in the MIT gym (Sprax Lines/WBUR)
I’d been nagging — I mean, gently reminding — my husband to arrange some sort of standing work desk for himself for months, so when he came across this big sign in the MIT gym recently, he texted me a photo as reassurance that mine was not a voice in the wilderness. My message had been reinforced in a palace of fitness.
Any sort of “You’re right, honey” is surely pleasant, but I found myself also struggling with some ambivalence that I can sum up in one word:
That is, do the health data really show that sitting is tantamount to smoking, the ultimate unhealthy behavior?
I didn’t rule it out. In recent months, study after study has suggested that sitting too much can shave years off your life — even if you work out. We’ve written about some of them, and included Dr. Eddie Phillips’ nicely turned phrase, “Sitting is a ‘disease state.’
I certainly don’t want to feel that every time I cuddle up next to my wife on the couch it’s the equivalent of lighting a cigarette.
But the ‘new smoking’ headlines have been proliferating to the point that the phrase seems to be turning into one of those little viral units of culture called memes. Runner’s World warns: Sitting is the new smoking even for runners. Wired reports from the center of its universe: In Silicon Valley, Sitting Is The New Smoking. Baltimore TV weighs in: Sitting Is The New Smoking, with the sub-headline, “Are chairs causing more deaths than cigarettes?” And even the august Harvard Business Review: Sitting is the Smoking of our Generation.
I suspect that one particular researcher may have particularly helped fuel the sitting-smoking meme. From the Los Angeles Times piece headlined, “Don’t Just Sit There.”
“Sitting is the new smoking,” says Anup Kanodia, a physician and researcher at the Center for Personalized Health Care at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. As evidence, he cites an Australian study published in October 2012 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that compared the two pastimes. Every hour of TV that people watch, presumably while sitting, cuts about 22 minutes from their life span, the study’s authors calculated. By contrast, it’s estimated that smokers shorten their lives by about 11 minutes per cigarette.
For a reality check, I turned to Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, fellow of the American College of Preventive Medicine and author of Disease Proof, a new book he describes as sharing “the truth about what it takes to get to health” and offering the skill set needed to get there. I asked him to take my question — “Really? Sitting is the new smoking?” — and riff on it as he saw fit. His response, lightly edited:
It seems to be the case that for any message to break through in our popular culture, it’s got to be hyperbolic. As we’re talking, one of the hot news items is that Oreos are more addictive than cocaine, all of this based on a study of about three rats. It’s completely overblown. That’s what we do.
So the specifics of smoking and sitting would be best addressed by looking at populations that do both and asking what ‘gets’ them. If you’ve got populations that sit comparably, and one group smokes and one doesn’t — and we’ve had that natural experiment, we’re a very sedentary society, we all do a lot of sitting — but there are smokers and non-smokers, and smokers tend to die younger and horribly. So clearly smoking is worse than sitting.
But there’s what the message says, which isn’t quite true — smoking is clearly worse, and if you are a person doing both, I’d say focus on giving up the cigarettes and then we’ll get you out of your chair — but I think what he message is meant to imply rather than what it states explicitly is that this is a threat to health, being too sedentary, spending too much time on our backsides. Continue reading