What is sitting disease?
“Sitting disease” is not a specific disease recognized by doctors. Rather, it is a lay term that epidemiologists have adopted because it neatly captures the health risks that prolonged passive sitting poses. The term “sitting disease” first appeared about 20 years ago, and was given a boost by the appearance of the meme “Sitting is the new smoking” which appeared in 2011. These two expressions summarize our addiction to passive sitting, and just how pervasive the problems that come with it have become.
The core idea is that sitting too much is a health risk, but this begs the question: How much sitting is too much sitting? Everyone is different, of course, but if someone is sitting so much that it distorts their posture, hurts their back, or harms their metabolic health, they’re sitting too much.
Am I sitting too much?
So, are you sitting too much? Well, if you’ve read this far, the answer is probably yes. And, actually, even if it hasn’t yet affected our health, most of us are sitting far more than is good for us.
Just how many hours per day will cause mischief for you depends on your age, genetics, and underlying health and fitness. But because we sit so much, over eight hours each day on average, it’s likely that sitting will eventually cause most of us problems. We know, for example, that 80% of Americans eventually develop back pain that sends them to a health care provider. And that’s just back pain, a problem that at least clearly announces its presence and isn’t fatal. Much more serious problems can arise insidiously: weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers have all been linked to sitting, a constellation of problems often summarized as “sitting disease”. And, while it may take decades to develop these conditions, taken together they have profound implications for our lifespans: it’s estimated by epidemiologists that sitting shortens our lives by an alarming two years.
Exactly how passive sitting causes so many problems, and so many kinds of problems, is not well understood. But it’s not surprising that sitting passively for many hours each day would stress us, because, simply put: We humans evolved to move, not sit. Sitting still was an uncommon posture for us during our long evolutionary history when we walked many miles each day, hunting and gathering. Uniquely among our primate cousins (chimps, bonobos, and gorillas) we require several hours of moderate activity such as walking each day to stay healthy. Passive sitting robs us of this baseline muscular engagement that keeps our good cholesterol up, our bad cholesterol down and our insulin levels low.
What can I do to avoid sitting too much?
Unfortunately, sitting is baked into our jobs, our amusements, our very lives, so we’re not likely to stop sitting. So, what’s the alternative to sitting?
Well, we can certainly sit less. And we can sit for shorter spells. It turns out that taking short activity breaks, as short as two minutes, can undo much of the metabolic harm inflicted by passive sitting. And finally, we may need to completely reinvent how we sit. But that’s a longer conversation.