We’re probably not the first to tell you that sitting is “the new smoking.” Well, more and more scientific evidence suggests that it may truly be the case.
According to the Start Standing campaign, excessive sitting is linked to heart disease, diabetes, back pain, obesity, and even cancer. Furthermore, the effort argues that a sedentary lifestyle is “one of the contributing factors to two of the top three causes of death in the U.S.”
Some researchers, however, think the saying—”sitting is the new smoking”—is a bit hyperbolic, at least when it comes to longevity, since studies indicate that sitting for more than eight hours a day increases the risk of death by 10 to 20 percent, which pales in comparison to the 180 percent increase caused by lighting up cigarettes.
Whatever the case, a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology is lending credence to the argument that spending too much time on the couch—or in your desk chair—really can significantly shorten your lifespan.
Researchers analyzed data on almost 8,000 individuals aged 45 and older who wore activity monitors between 2009 and 2013 and found that replacing 30 minutes of sitting time with light physical activity such as walking could reduce the risk of early death by 17 percent. And if you replace those 30 minutes with moderate to vigorous physical exercise, that risk is reduced by 35 percent.
Given the rise in the popularity of standing desks, it’s important to emphasize that the research indicates that moving around—rather than just standing up—is the key to reaping these healthy benefits.
“In our previous work, we found that if you take a break every 30 minutes, it will lower your risk from sitting,” Keith Diaz, a certified exercise physiologist, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, and lead author of the study, told CNN. “We went deeper into the data to try to understand that more, and why people who took a movement every 30 minutes had a lower risk of death: It’s because they just had more opportunity to move,”
You don’t have to take the 30 minutes all in one go, and you don’t need to do anything strenuous. Just a casual stroll to the coffee counter counts.
“You don’t have to take a 10 minute break and go run up and down the stairs,” Diaz said. “If you take a one-minute movement break and instead of going to the bathroom closest to your desk, you go to the bathroom furthest from your desk, maybe that’s enough to help you accrue this healthful activity. Or, if you have a meeting, walk and talk.”
The study’s findings are the latest to highlight the importance of simply moving around. In his bestselling book The Super Metabolism Diet, David Zinczenko tells the remarkable story of researchers in California who have been studying how our metabolisms work by focusing on spiders.
It’s well known that when spiders hunt, they adopt a “sit-and-wait” strategy, in which they spin their webs and then let their food come to them.
As they wait, however, the researchers discovered that their bodies conserve energy by entering something they call the “super relaxed state (SRX),” a period in which their metabolisms essentially shut down and they stop burning energy. Here’s the kicker: the researchers say humans have the super relaxed state too—and any sort of movement helps counteract it.
“Moving throughout the day is important,” Stanford Professor and metabolism expert Clyde Wilson, PhD., told Zinczenko. “Because a simple twitch from your nervous system to muscle is what gets you out of the super relaxed state.”
So if you want to keep burning energy, any movement helps keep your fuel furnace burning—stretching, fidgeting, chewing gum, or standing up and walking around.
“Any movement for any length of time is going to give you health benefit, and this is really shifting what we know about physical activity,” Diaz told CNN.
So if you want to be healthy, your first step isn’t necessarily a gym membership. It’s simply a stroll to Starbucks.