Sitting is the new smoking? Stand up and live longer 6


Long Life street sign

What’s the secret of a long life? You can’t open a newspaper or web page these days without finding some new anti-aging strategy. What to eat, how to exercise, when to sleep – scientists seem to be continually investigating what makes us live longer.

There are so many studies there’s hardly time to read them all. Much less, to figure out which recommendations seem worthwhile.

Some advice begs to be followed. Like recent studies showing that eating lots of vegetables and fruit significantly reduces the risk of death from cancer and heart disease. I decided to implement these recommendations in my own life. It makes sense to me that upping my daily consumption of fresh fruit and veg will improve my health and well-being. Even if this advice were ever proved wrong, the very fact that I believe it could make it more effective. That’s because of the placebo effect, which has been validated by research.

human beings evolved to stand - not sit

Human beings evolved to stand – not sit.

Now I’ve decided to implement the findings of another new study, in the British Medical Journal. It’s on the benefits of standing versus sitting and has particular relevance for older people. It shows that exercise is alright but standing is better. So I’ve been trying to stand more. Yes, stand. As in stand up. Or stand around. The point is simply to sit less.

There is growing concern that not only low physical activity but probably also sitting and sedentary behaviour is an important and new health hazard of our time. We hypothesise that a reduction in sitting hours is of greater importance than an increase in exercise time for elderly risk individuals.

Professor Mai-Lis Hellénius, author of British Medical Journal study, Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden in interview with Telegraph, UK

A German study has further shown that the risks of too much sitting get even worse when combined with another negative influence on our health: TV.

potato on couch

Couch potatoes – your days are numbered!

The primary finding from our meta-analysis is that prolonged TV viewing and time spent in other sedentary pursuits is associated with increased risks of colon and endometrial cancer… Prolonged sitting time lowers energy expenditure and displaces time spent in light physical activities, which consequently leads to weight gain over time.

– Daniela Schmid and Dr. Michael Leitzmann, University of Regensburg, Germany, authors of study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The scientific explanation of the research findings on sitting versus standing is all about telomeres. If you’ve been reading studies on aging you may have bumped into this word for the protective coating on DNA. Long telomeres are associated with long life. This study found that spending time standing helps lengthen telomeres.

telomeres protect DNA

Telomeres are said to protect our DNA like the plastic tips of shoelaces.

That’s the theory, what about practice? Any ideas on reducing sitting time? Now that “Sitting is the new smoking.”

We lose two hours of life for every hour we sit.

– Dr. James Levine, director, Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and author of Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You

sitting more than 4 hrs/day causes heart disease

An obvious way to cut down on chair time is to spend less time sitting at a desk, in an office or at home. There’s suddenly a lot of interest in desks whose height can be adjusted to allow for working while standing. Dr. Levine has even invented a treadmill desk so you can jog while you work.

A new UK campaign, Get Britain Standing,  has been launched to try and get Britons to reduce their nearly 9 hours of daily sitting. The US campaign Just Stand estimates that Americans sit for as much as 15 hours a day.

So what’s the solution?

Sit-Stand workstations are the ultimate solution as part of a commitment to Active Working.

Get Britain Standing

sit-stand desk models

However, adjustable-height desk mounts or desk risers are pricey. I’d like to try one out first, to see if working while standing works for me. So I invented a makeshift standing desk. Putting an old PC tower case on top of a normal desk seems to take it to the right height. Most computer cases are made of steel, thus sturdy enough for a small, light laptop – but nothing else fits, it’s so narrow.

You can obviously use anything to make your desktop higher. The writer of How a DIY Standing Desk Changed My Life says she puts upside-down trash cans on top of her desk to bring it to standing height for work.

There is already paraphernalia to go with the adjustable standing desks on the market. For example, what’s being called an “anti-fatigue mat”, a kind of oversized mousepad to stand on at your elevated desk.

diagram showing posture working while standing

In the first trial of my own personal Sit-time Reduction Study, I worked at my laptop while standing for about 90 minutes. I’m going to try and increase my standing work time over the next few weeks. I’ll also see if a mat is useful, but for now I either stand in my most comfortable shoes, in stockinged feet, or barefoot.

PC tower to elevate desk

My makeshift standing desk made from an old PC tower case on desk of normal height (rare instance of Mac and PC collaboration)

In addition to standing, and in place of sitting, Dr. Levine of Just Stand advises us all to do more NEAT: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. All this means is spending energy on activities other than sports. Doing the dishes, taking out the garbage, dancing, walking the dog, shopping.

Here’s a trick question: Given the proven benefits of standing and evils of sitting, what do you do if chairs are scarce and a younger person offers you their seat?

“Thanks, but no thanks,” you respond firmly, remaining on your own two feet. Steel yourself against this enticing offer. Do not start lowering your rear end. Just say, “Bob Marley told us to get up and stand up for our rights. Now I need to stand up for my life!”

No, actually. Forget that advice. Rather recall that tip from politicians and celebrities to never pass up an opportunity for a rest stop. I think the same applies to a brief sit-down. I mean, all this life-extending standing is great, but My New Old Self aims to take occasional quick, well-deserved breaks. Then I will to rise to my feet, to stand another hour or two.


6 thoughts on “Sitting is the new smoking? Stand up and live longer

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  2. Reply Jan Folmer Jan 29,2015 9:30 am

    Awareness of treadmill desks in South Africa is rising. I have been walking and working on a treadmill desk for over 3 years now, and the benefits are, but not limited to, increased productivity, lower absenteeism and weight-loss. Treadmill Desks in South Africa are not widely available yet, I purchased mine here:

    • Reply myself Jan 29,2015 9:43 am

      Thanks for this link on where to purchase treadmill desks in South Africa. Great to get your report-back on your own experience of working while standing – for 3 years, wow! Do you have the treadmill on all day, i.e. you’re always walking while at the treadmill desk?

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