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Sitting is the new smoking

Sitting is the new smoking


     As bad as smoking is, we have discovered a new public enemy number one. A new study published last fall indicates that inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle are even more dangerous to your health than smoking.  If you are a smoker sitting down as you read this intro, you may want to prepare your will.

In a study published last October, Dr.Ema Wilmot of the diabetes research group at the University of Leicester in Britain analyzed 18 existing studies involving almost 800,000 people. The paper published in the medical journal Diabetologia, compared disease rates between the most active and the least active among a broad cross-section of adults.

The researchers found that the least active, essentially those that sit all day had a:

  • 147-per cent increased risk of heart attack or stroke
  • 112-per cent increase in the risk of developing diabetes
  • 90-per cent greater risk of dying from a cardiac event
  • 49-per cent greater risk of premature death

Those are very scary numbers especially when you consider that the average Canadian adult spends 50 to 70 per cent of their daily lives sitting, and roughly another 30 per cent sleeping.

If you do the math you will quickly realize that between sitting in our cars, sitting at our desks at work, sitting in front of the TV, sitting in front of your games consoles or computer, sitting to eat and sitting in school, we hardly move all day.

When this new study looked at the actual numbers there was good evidence that inactivity now kills more people than smoking each year.

We have produced so many devices in the workplace and at home that we have engineered activity completely out of our daily lives and this is taking a severe toll on our health, individually and collectively.

In recent years we have been focusing on the staggering increase in the number of people who are overweight and obese. We have refined these numbers a bit with an emphasis on belly-size and waist-to-hip-ratio, while recognizing it is where we put on the weight that matters. Your actual pound weight is not that important because you can be fat and fit and you can be thin and unfit.

However, regardless of your body shape and weight, there is almost no way you can be sedentary and healthy.

Activity is very important for your heart health, for your brain, for growing bone, for having bowel movements and finally even for your sexual health.

Activity is just about moving. You do not have to run a marathon each day or spend hours in the gym. You simply need a moderate amount of exercise which is the equivalent of a brisk walk – 30 to 60 minutes a day, every day.

Very few people are meeting this standard. According to Statistics Canada, only 15 per cent of adults and 7 per cent of children meet the recommended physical activity guidelines each day. Those are the most active people in our society, and they are not even that active.

The researchers in the study pointed out that even more important than exercise is an activity called “light ambulation.” This term means moving around at regular intervals, standing up and walking a short distance instead of remaining on your derriere.

Exercising heavily for an hour will not offset 23 hours of being sedentary. But breaking up your sitting with activity, even very light activity, can have a significant impact.

Dr.Wilmot, the author of the paper concluded that prolonged sitting sharply reduces glucose and insulin secretion, key factors in developing diabetes. But these changes can be offset by standing up and walking two minutes for every 20 minutes of sitting. This is true even in obese people. It has always been recommended that diabetics walk around the house for 5 minutes immediately after a meal in order that the blood sugar is utilized rather than stored and converted into fat.

This means that even if you watch TV for hours at a time, getting up and walking during the commercials will be doing your heart a big favour. Of course if you really want to do your heart an even bigger favour, get up and take the dog for a walk.

Similarly, office workers can offset much of their risk by taking a short walk every half-hour, or by having a standing desk, or even by sitting on an exercise ball. A further benefit to this activity is that when workers do take more breaks and walk around, they actually become more productive.

Activity can be divided into four main components: domestic physical activity, work-related activity, transportation-related activity and exercise. In the past generation or two, levels of activity in each of these areas have fallen sharply – except exercise.

Less than two generations ago, almost all physical activity occurred on the job. The number of people doing manual labour has plummeted while the number of people in white-collar jobs has soared.

Manual tasks in our homes have all but disappeared. We vacuum instead of sweep; we have dishwashers instead of washing and drying dishes by hand; we have machines to cut and trim the grass and the list of time-saving devices goes on and on.

Almost all of our transport is by car. Fewer than 10 per cent of people walk or take public transportation to work. As children we may have walked or biked to school but today, 90 per cent of our kids are bussed.

As I write this article, I am not forgetting that small but growing minority of the population that do exercise. They run, swim, they do Cross Fit or spinning or even dancing, whatever the latest fad exercise is. But even if we all did this, it is still not enough to counter a sedentary life style. We might as well call it “Sitting Disease.”

Society is not going to change and as time moves forward there will be less and less physical activities for us to perform. This means we have to be creative and find ways to stand up and move around in order to protect our health. A few steps here and a few steps there could be enough steps to a healthier future.


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