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Sitting Is The New Smoking


If you’re sitting down when you read this, stand up. Your body—and your loved ones—will thank you for it. Sitting disease—a term coined to describe our increasingly sedentary lifestyle—is associated with thirty-four chronic diseases and conditions, according to Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative, and the inventor of the treadmill desk.

Spend more time on your feet—and more time off your butt—and you can add two years or more to your life. What’s more, you can reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer, and improve your brain function as well.

Nineteen hours of inactivity is too much

Most of us sit up to twelve hours a day—and that doesn’t count the hours we spend flat on our backs in bed. Add in seven hours of sleep and that’s nineteen hours a day of inactivity—rivaling that of the average sloth. Sloths are the most sedentary of all mammals, so slow moving that algae grows on them. Seriously. (At the rate we are going as a species, we may be covered in green goo, too. If we survive that long.)

If you’re thinking, oh, that doesn’t apply to me, because I exercise regularly, think again. Even those of us who exercise regularly may not be able to offset the damage done while we sit around watching TV or surfing the Internet. For every hour we sit, our fitness level drops. Worse, recent studies show that people who sit a lot have a 24 percent higher risk of colon cancer, a 32 percent higher risk of endometrial cancer, and a 21 percent higher risk of lung cancer—no matter how much they exercised.

Get off your seat and embrace NEAT

All this sitting is killing us—literally. In fact, doctors now call sitting the new smoking, in terms of the damage done to our health.

New research indicates that this has to do with the different kinds of calories and the way our bodies burn them. Our bodies use energy in three basic ways: 1) doing what cells do (muscle cells contract and flex, liver cells make enzymes, etc.); 2) breaking down food for energy; and 3) moving. It’s the moving energy that’s of interest here, and that moving energy comes in two types, the type that makes us sweat, and the type known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT. NEAT energy is what we use when we tap our foot or walk up the stairs or iron a shirt.

When we sit, we don’t need much NEAT energy—and our bodies know it. So the signals that trigger movement check out—and the signals that build fat get busy. An object at rest . . .

When we eat, our blood sugar soars, pealing an hour after the meal. If we chill out after the meal, all that glucose goes right to fat, and eventually to obesity and diabetes. If we go for a stroll instead, we burn some of that glucose off, cutting our risk of obesity and diabetes.

It benefits your brain, too

Burning more NEAT energy is better for your brain as well. Dr. Levine ran a NEAT experiment with students in Rochester, Minnesota, swapping out their regular desks for standing desks. This doubled the kids’ activity level—and within two months, they were more engaged, less stressed, better behaved at school and at home, and, most impressive, they’d boosted their standardized test scores by 20 percent.

Stand up: three hours a day

Three hours a day is all it takes to burn up more NEAT energy. In fact, swap sitting for standing three hours a day five days a week for a year and you’ve burned around 30,000 calories—8 pounds of fat!—the equivalent of running ten marathons.

The moral of this story: Whatever you do, do not sit still. Get up and move. Note: I wrote this story standing up.

Get up off that duff

Here are some steps you can take to get up off your duff and build the stand-up habit:

Walk after you eat: Sitting after meals raises glucose levels. Good news: The time you spend on your feet cleaning up and loading the dishwasher is great for your body–and you won’t have dirty dishes in your sink.

Invest in a standing desk: I had a bike desk, but I’m a writer and type only as fast as I can think, so I’d catch myself slowing down and stopping pedaling altogether whenever I paused typing to think. Solution: a standing desk, which I found on Amazon for $50, and love! Now I can stand, fidget, do yoga stretches, even dance when the right song comes along on my iPod.


Stand on the train, the subway, the bus: Everywhere you have to wait—the airport, the doctor’s office, the bus stop—skip the seat and stand up instead.

Stand while you talk on the phone: Better yet, pace. I have a blue tooth gadget my high-tech pal John got me, which allows me to answer my cell phone simply by speaking into its microphone. I can have conversations while I’m dusting or folding laundry or loading the dishwasher. (My house is a lot neater lately.)

Walk around the room during commercials—or the whole show: You don’t have to give up TV, just give up sitting in favor of calisthenics, walking on a treadmill, pedaling a bike, stretching into some yoga postures. At the very least, move during commercials.

Get up every hour for at least ten minutes: Go get a drink of water or walk over to your co-worker’s cubicle for a chat or take the stairs to that meeting two flights up.

Smoking is the new sittingPaula Munier is a writer, literary agent, and yoga teacher. Her books include Fixing Freddie, 5-Minute Mindfulness, and Plot Perfect. She lives for visits with her three kids and two grandkids, not necessarily in that order.

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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