We Have a Sitting Epidemic on Our Hands

Sitting is the new smoking. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Although it’s a bold (and slightly dated) claim, it rings true in many aspects. Sedentary behavior has plagued humankind for years. Unfortunately, it goes far beyond the bounds of slipping into a ‘lazy’ or ‘apathetic’ society. Ploeg et al. have linked excessive sitting to an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality.

It has been labeled as an epidemic for a reason.

Coincidently, one of North America's favourite past-times involves lounging. Nearly 80% of people will watch at least two hours of TV per day (this doesn’t even include phone activity). What’s striking is that according to Katzmarzyk et al., the estimated gains in life expectancy is 2.00 years for reducing excessive sitting to 3 h/day, and 1.38 years by reducing excessive television viewing to <2 h/day. There’s some food for thought.

Sedentary behavior goes far beyond First World countries, accounting for 8.3% of deaths worldwide. There is significant evidence to prove that excessive sitting will spike the risk of colon, lung, and uterine cancer. It can even reduce one’s mental health, concentration, and productivity. These economic and health effects cause the global cost of physical inactivity to be estimated at 68$ billion.

It’s very clear. We weren’t made to sit around.

Please know that this article is not about fear-mongering. My sole purpose is to raise awareness for a prevalent health risk in our society, and to suggest personal and community strategies to ameliorating our current circumstances. By reducing sedentary behavior, we can build healthier, safer lives that takes stress off of the health care system.

This movement is already gaining legitimate traction. Thousands of companies across the world are instituting initiatives to fight back sedentary behavior. We still have a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction. This momentum will continue if we advocate one simple message:

We were made to move.

Is the Sitting Epidemic Real?

As luxury and efficiency soar thanks to technological breakthroughs, sedentary behavior follows. This is defined as any activity below 1.5 METS, such as sitting, reclining, and lying down. In most of the literature, labeling someone as ‘sedentary’ means they take part in less than 150min of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, but this can vary.

Technicalities aside, the data shows that we’re moving less and sitting more.

One study, observing sedentary trends from 2001–2016, found that the average adult increased computer use by 1 hour, and elevated total sitting from 5.5 to 6.4 h/d. I find it hard to believe that these numbers aren’t higher.

Consequently, in 2019, only 16.4% of adults met physical activity guidelines. I believe these statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, however, considering the complexity of collecting this type of data on such a large scale. Regardless, there is a clear trend of physical inactivity continuing to rise since the early 2000s.

There are many reasons for the increase in sedentary behavior. Look back at the 1940s and you can blame the “Freeway Age”, causing social and business outings to be incomplete without sitting inside an automobile. Look back to the late 2000s and you could fault the “iPhone Age”, immensely increasing the convenience of life, all while requiring less physical activity out of its beneficiaries.

“Our whole culture invites you to take a seat. We say, ‘Are you comfortable?’ Please take a seat!” -Gavin Bradley

In one study, it was found that the average office worker spends 81.8% of work hours in sedentary mode. Combine this with the nature of our leisure time, and there’s a real problem. Additionally, impoverished populations show increased rates of inactivity due to safety issues and access to facilities. Despite the ‘First World’ nature of this country, there remain cultural and infrastructural shortcomings that prevent healthy living.

There is a glimmer of hope, however. The World Health Organization has created an action plan to achieve a 30% relative reduction in sedentary behavior by 2030. This could save billions of dollars and millions of lives.

Many large companies, such as Google and Apple, are beginning to catch the drift by creating office spaces that foster wellness — packed with walking paths, standing desks, and yes, even sleep pods. One company named TotalWellness even allows employees to exercise “on the clock” for 30 minutes per day. This investment boosts concentration, productivity, and creative collaboration among the staff.

As much as this is a systemic, cultural issue, combatting this trend begins with one individual, one workplace, and one community at a time.

“The power of community to create health is far greater than any physician, clinic, or hospital.” — Dr. Mark Hyman

How Can We ‘Flatten the Curve’?

To spark effective change, sedentary behavior must be replaced with physical activity. It’s not as easy as just doing 150min of exercise and then calling it quits. You must pay attention to the other 6500 minutes of the waking week as well.

“It is not good enough to exercise for 30 minutes a day and be sedentary for 23 and a half hours.” — Dr. David Alter

There are two approaches to bettering sedentary behavior and inspiring physical activity here in North America: individual strategies, and community initiatives. This is not an exhaustive guide, but rather a brief glimpse into ‘what could be’ if we counteracted the sitting epidemic with physical activity and wellness programs.

Individual Strategies

  1. Stand up every 30 minutes — even for 30 seconds. If there is one thing you take away from this article, please let it be this.

  2. Invest in a standing desk. Just know that movement breaks are still required every 30 minutes.

  3. Consider taking a brief walk on your lunch break.

  4. Stand up for every phone call (if it’s not too awkward of course).

  5. Combine driving with walking by parking a few minutes from your workplace.

  6. Use a water bottle, but only fill it halfway. This will cause you to get up more frequently to replenish it.

  7. Set timers on your phone for sedentary leisure activities. If this doesn’t fly, consider being active in front of your screen! Who says you can’t do burpees while watching Netflix?

Again, these are just a few options of many.

Community Initiatives

  1. Focus attention on making suburbs more active-friendly through siting of smaller and more common parks and schools, inclusion of greenspace in developments, and connectivity of neighbourhoods.

  2. Return daily physical education options to all schools from K-12.

  3. Increased media campaigns, whether local, state-wide, or national, to promote daily activity and bring awareness to the detriments of sedentary behavior.

  4. Invest in accurate health tracking software for schools, workplaces, and /or personal devices.

  5. Increase ‘physical activity incentives’ for employees who hold office jobs. This may include incentives for walking or biking to work and creating more activity-friendly work environments (e.g., providing exercise facilities or allowing time for physical activity during the workday).

By creating subtle changes to our infrastructure, education system, and workplaces, we can dramatically alter health outcomes in this country.

In Closing,

The ‘sitting epidemic’ has been under the radar for far too long. Although awareness is now increasing around its ill-effects, sedentary behavior continues to rise.

How do we slow down this trend? How do we fight the silent epidemic?

It begins by taking personal responsibility in healthy living, as well as advocating for community initiatives that challenge physical inactivity as the cultural norm. Fulfilling this mission will not only reduce stress on our health care system, but it will foster a nation of innovators and difference-makers who lead the way because they’re active.

Let’s shed light on the invisible epidemic. It’s time to stifle sedentary behavior and live true to our nature.

We were made to move!