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Sitting Is Not the New Smoking

The popular slogan comparing inactivity to smoking is misleading.

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The evidence is definitive. Risks of smoking far outweigh the health dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. It’s important to raise awareness of the hazards of inactivity, but distorted information about risks of behavioral choices can confuse the public. “The simple fact is, smoking is one of the greatest public health disasters of the past century. Sitting is not, and you can’t really compare the two,” said study author Terry Boyle, PhD, an epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, Adelaide.

In 2018, nine researchers from the U.S., Canada and Australia co-authored a study highlighting that people who sit excessively—more than 8 hours a day—have a 10%–20% higher risk of dying from some cancers and common chronic diseases than people who stay more active. In contrast, smokers have more than twice the risk of dying from cancer and cardiovascular diseases and a more than 1,000% higher risk of getting lung cancer compared with nonsmokers. Any level of smoking increases the risk of dying from any cause by 180%, versus a 25% risk increase from prolonged sitting. Boyle also noted that unlike smoking, sitting is neither an addiction nor a danger to others.

The study authors do support public health efforts to change sitting habits, just as there have been campaigns to decrease smoking rates. On a positive note, since sitting is not addictive, the authors think public health initiatives may be even more successful in increasing activity and reducing sedentary behavior.

The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health (2018; doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304649).

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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