Is Sitting the New Smoking?

July 01, 2019 at 3:08 PM

Recently this phrase has become more and more popular with the media as it’s catchy, and let’s face it, the media love to get our attention with worrying headlines.


So is it as bad as they say? We all know the negative effects of smoking and how damaging it is to your health. But is excessive sitting as bad for your health as smoking?


Luckily for us the research says no. 


Smoking still tops the list when it comes to the multitude of negative effects on our health. However this doesn’t mean that excessive periods of sitting are healthy for us.


In our western society, we are on the whole, sitting significantly more than we were 30 years ago. An average westerner sits for over 10 hours a day.  Considering we are only awake for about 16 hours a day that’s nearly two thirds of our waking hours that we spend sitting. Driving to work, sitting at the desk, driving home, sitting at the dinner table, sitting in front of the television.  Then off to bed before repeating it all again the next day.


Although we are worse off smoking than sitting, a recent review of the literature has shown that prolonged sitting is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity and cancer. This of course is concerning in itself but what about the effect of all this sitting on our back and neck?


Research has shown that when we sit, the pressure through the low back discs are nearly double the force than when we are in a standing posture.  This information on its own only tells part of the story, though. Human spines are designed to move and benefit from movement immensely. They are not designed to sit for long periods of time, day after day, year after year.  Excessive sitting (more than 8 hours a day) can lead to stiffened joints of the spine, hips and knees. It can play a role in shortening and weakening the legs, as well as tightening the hip and spinal muscles. In addition, there are a myriad of other possible problems that can come as a result of also using a computer when combined with sitting, such as upper limb strain injuries and eye issues from the glare of the screen itself. 


Ergonomic chairs, lumbar supports and correctly set up workstations, whilst certainly a step in the right direction, can only do so much. Not long ago, the common belief was that sitting up straight and having ‘good’ posture would make extended periods of sitting ok. Or that you could balance out sitting all day at the office with gym sessions or lunchtime walks. Once again, while these are steps in the right direction, a recent study revealed that every 5 hours of sitting may completely negate the effects of an entire hour of vigorous exercise. 


According to the Ministry of Health, adults should “do at least 2 ½ hours of moderate or 1 ¼ hours of vigorous physical activity spread throughout the week” to maintain a basic level of fitness. But if you look at the numbers, with the average westerner sitting 10 or more hours per day, and an hour of exercise being negated for every 5 hours of sitting, it’s easy to see why long hours of sitting becomes significant when it comes to the negative effect on our health.  


So what can you do about it?


In western cultures it’s just accepted that we sit during meetings, in waiting rooms for doctors, and at our desks while we work. It’s habit for receptionists to tell you to ‘please take a seat Mrs Jones’ when waiting for any type of appointment. But you have a choice. And you can start making better habits. Stand in the waiting room, ask your boss to go for a “walking meeting”, park in the far corner of the lot when you go to work or the grocery store. Take the stairs.  


Think about where you sit the most - work. With newer, smaller standing desks that can sit on top of your own desk and raise and lower for sitting or standing, you can begin to cut down your sitting time dramatically. Often, your company may even have a “staff wellness” budget to buy these desks for you in an effort to make reasonable accommodations for anyone with physical issues or disabilities. If they’re not convinced, here are some stats that might help them come around:


  • Each year, companies incur large absenteeism costs associated with 5 major health conditions (smoking, physical inactivity, obesity, hypertension and diabetes). Standing desks have been linked to prevention of 4 out of 5 of these conditions. (The only one it hasn’t been proven to prevent? - You guessed it: smoking)

  • Standing desks have been proven to increase workplace productivity by upwards of 10%

  • Companies with standing desks report less sick days taken and greater employee retention and overall happiness 

  • The use of standing desks increases collaboration and face-to-face interaction in the office 

  • Standing desks increase physical activity, and healthier workforces can benefit from reduced health care expenses

  • With reductions in neck and back pain, employers may reduce the risk of liability for potential worker’s injury compensation claims


For all of the reasons above, standing desks are a long-term investment that actually save companies money over time. Here at Auckland Physiotherapy, we don’t just talk the talk. We have standing desks in many of our treatment rooms, and for those that don’t have them, the physios are often standing to discuss and provide treatment for you. We also have walking meetings, encourage our staff to go for walks or use our gym equipment in their downtime, and our staff often walk down and up the 3 flights of stairs to our Greenlane clinic at regular intervals throughout the day. 

As with all cultural and societal habits and norms, things can take a while to change altogether. Take the single-use plastic bags, for example. It was once not even a thought to use those bags for all your shopping needs and then toss them out. It took a few years of education about why these bags were bad for us and the environment for us to catch on. And there were many stores who implemented this early on, and were met by much eye rolling, until it’s now automatic for most people to bring their cloth bags into the supermarket with them for their shopping. The evidence against prolonged sitting is out there. It’s time for us to all start making better habits. 


Darryl Reid

Darryl Reid is a Senior Physiotherapist, specialising in reoccurring spinal pains, sports injuries and chronic pain. 

To see the lightweight and economical standing desk we use and offer, click HERE. Feel free to stop into our Greenlane clinic to test one out. 

To enquire about workplace assessments for your company, please send your enquiry to

Category: Physiotherapy