Why Media Reports That Sitting too Much May Be Killing You is a Half-Truth

There is good research that clearly highlight the dangers of too much sitting and hence warn against it. The media have branded sitting as the “new smoking”, especially for people with sit-down office jobs.

Sitting has been linked with cancer, heart disease and diabetes and even depression. Surprisingly it has not been linked to back pain as one might expect.

When we are led to believe that even people who do a lot of exercise are still at significant risk we might wrongly decide to just bury our heads in the sand on this one given so many of our jobs involve predominately sitting. Before we do however, we should be aware that, “Research just published shows 30-40% of media stories on sedentary behavior promote misleading messages, such as sitting undoes the benefits of exercise.”

There is some worthy news if we are not in the most at risk populations. Obese sedentary types are most at risk, no great surprise here. However, social status and extent of inactivity are key factors that need to be properly considered when researchers allow for obesity in their populations. The most at risk people are those of low social status that sit in front of the TV for long periods and eat fast foods and predominantly processed foods, and do not do regular vigorous exercise.

People in higher social status categories who sit a lot due to their roles are at less risk because they tend to have better eating habits, exercise habits and the type of sitting they do (not TV sitting) slightly lowers their risk.

The news that sitting is the ‘new smoking’ has fueled the rise in the popularity of standing desks to encourage people to get off their chairs to improve their health. There is not yet strong supporting evidence that sit/stand desks give any quantifiable benefit if anything they may put users at greater risk if they feel like they have done their bit and reduce their exercise as a result.
For people who are physically inactive, though, the story’s different. Two recent studies show the total time spent sitting a day is linked with developing diabetes, but only in people who are physically inactive or both physically inactive and obese.

That’s still not the whole story. At least two factors determine if sitting is a risk factor in its own right: the type and context of sitting.
We’re most likely to sit at work, at play and while travelling. And a growing body of evidence suggests not all sitting is equal.
For example, sitting down at work isn’t strongly linked with long-term health risks. Perhaps that’s because higher status jobs involve more sitting, and higher socioeconomic position is linked with a lower risk of chronic disease.

It’s a different case for sitting watching TV, the type of sitting most consistently linked with long-term health risks such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and an early death.
People who watch a lot of TV tend to be of lower socioeconomic status, unemployed, have poorer mental health, eat unhealthy foods and be exposed to unhealthy food advertising.
So, the first priority is to reinforce the most evidence-based message: move as often as possible, huff and puff sometimes.


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