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"Sitting is the New Smoking"

February 27, 2017



Dr. Kelly Starrett, author of Supple Leopard and Deskbound, has had a huge influence on the lives of both my wife and I.  In some ways, he is also the inspiration of The Keep Moving Project.  He and his wife have created Stand Up Kids, a charity in San Francisco, California, that works to encourage and educate teachers, parents, and children on the risks associated with too much sitting and not enough standing and playing.  This article serves to bring you a summary of the great information that he had made available, both online and in his books.  I encourage you to check out their website and even explore their media page to learn more.


Why Standing?


Our normal moving patterns, e.g. walking, running, jumping, sitting, define the quality of our musculature for our entire lives.  And seemingly unrelated events might actually have significant cause-and-effect relationships.  For example, when children younger than 5 run, they will do so with perfect form without any instruction.  However, mid-way through first grade/primary 1, something strange happens: all of a sudden they have become heal strikers (landing on the heel rather than mid-foot, resulting in severe rippling forces up their legs and spine that can lead to foot, knee, hip, and back pain).


What happened during this time?  Did they take a running class teaching them bad technique?  No, not at all.  They’ve started their careers as professional sitters.  First grade is when more time is spent on instruction rather than play, and kids are forced to sit still for periods of time that even adults have difficulty handling (has that teacher walking around at the front of the class ever wondered why he or she is more focused than the students?).  This sitting results in legs muscles deactivating and becoming weak and imbalanced.  And this is the reason children begin to run incorrectly and is also why you today very likely run incorrectly if you have not been re-trained in proper technique.  But sitting is far more dangerous than just impacting how we run and walk.


Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative states that “[s]itting is more dangerous than smoking, killing more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting…we are sitting ourselves to death.”  He, along with a continuously growing number of experts argue that “sitting for as little as two continuous hours increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, back and neck pain, and other orthopedic problems” with the conclusion that “sitting will shorten your life, just like smoking.”


An Australian study conducted in 2008 reports that every hour of television watched after age 25 reduces the viewer’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes (Too Much Sitting: The Population-Health Science of Sedentary Behavior).  By comparison, smoking one cigarette reduces life expectancy by 11 minutes.


The World Health Organization ranks physical inactivity – i.e. sitting too much – as the fourth largest preventable killer globally, resulting in over 3 million deaths per year.


Moving is good for the brain.  The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle founded the famous Peripatetic School, where teaching was conducted while walking on pathways around the Lyceum.  Many of the greatest thinkers and leaders of the world, including Winston Churchill, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Dickens, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin made their earth-shattering decisions while working at standing desks.



The History of Sitting


Sitting seems like it’s been around for as long as human history exists, but the duration of our sitting is a new phenomenon.  In Dr. Kelly Starett’s book Deskbound, he explains that for nearly 200,000 years, humans have spent the majority of their existence on the move.  When we were hungry, we had to hunt or gather to eat.  This resulted in our bodies evolving for movement, and in turn, “movement keeps our bodies healthy.” 


Fast-forward to the 21st century and what happened in a very short period, we’ve gone from movers to office workers.  “Citizens of the developed nations of the world have become almost completely sedentary – from the way we shop and travel to the way we work and play.”


Once the desk and chair combinations became a cultural norm in the workplace, other sitting-based innovations came to life: intercom, telephones, computers, instant message, and now text message.  We can spend almost the entire workday sitting.


But we need to sit to rest, right?  Well, the problem with sitting is that it’s very similar to junk food: rarely do we partake in moderation.


What about going to the gym?  I go to the gym, walk to work/take public transportation, and eat healthy.  These good behaviors still keep me healthy, right?  No.  A 2010 American Cancer Society study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology followed 100,000+ individuals (56% women, 44% men) for 13 years and found:


  1. Women who sit more than 6 hours a day were 94% more likely to die during the time period studied than those who were physically active and sat less than 3 hours a day.

  2. Men who sat more than 6 hours a day were 48% more likely to die during the time period studied than those who were physically active and sat less than 3 hours a day.


What made these finds more surprising was that they were “independent of physical activity levels,” meaning that any benefit from exercise was non-existent after prolonged sitting.


What Happens When You Sit?


Source: 2010 survey by Kaiser Family Foundation – Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds


The average U.S. student is sitting at school an average of 4.5 hours per day.

For kids ages 8-18, an additional 7 hours per day is spend sitting in front of the TV screen, regardless of socioeconomic status

Combine the sitting at school and in front of the TV with driving to school, doing homework, and eating meals, our kids are sitting 85% of their waking hours.


Adults will spend even more time sitting given their working hours 8-12 hours per day and can be sitting as much as 95% of their waking hours!


“Sitting is the new Smoking”


Experts are now saying that sitting is so overdone that it is as hazardous to our health as smoking because (source “prolonged sitting will shorten your life, just like smoking.  Sitting as little as 2 hrs continuously, increases risk for:


  1. Heart Disease

  2. Diabetes

  3. Metabolic Syndrome

  4. Cancer

  5. Back & Neck Pain

  6. And Other Orthopedic Problems

(Source: Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, and author of “Get Up! Why You Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About it”)


On top of this, our bodies essentially break-down.  Our joints are designed to last 110 years, but I’m sure that everyone knows of people who needed hip replacement surgeries, experience knee or lower back pain, have experienced carpel tunnel, or have had a frozen shoulder.  All of these can be traced back to too much sitting.  But, we never notice that it’s the sitting causing these pains.  Take the following analogy from Deskbound: if a beaver spends nine days chewing down a pine tree, but on the tenth day a strong wind blows the tree over, what actually caused the tree to fall?  Sure, it might have been that game of basketball that resulted in the ACL tear, but all of that sitting has resulted in the stabilizing and connective tissue to get weak.


What Happens When You Stand?


  • Standing prevents orthopedic degradation & dysfunction including back and neck pain, repetitive stress injuries, pelvic floor dysfunction, and knee & hip disorders.

  • Standing desks create the foundation for a movement-rich environment, and as one researcher put it, physical activity is cognitive candy (Sources:, and Dr. Mark Benden – Texas A&M)

  • Sitting too much causes disease and orthopedic dysfunction, and impedes ability to learn.

  • Small movements at standing desks, such as fidgeting, has a large impact on calorie expenditure.

  • Classroom management is easier.

  • Standing prevents the body’s tissue adaptation to static positions (i.e. short hip flexors & hamstrings, rounded upper back, poor shoulder position) AND it does not erode the child’s physiology like sitting does.

  • Standing maintains the integrity of all the complex motor skills required for optimal physical function.

  • Reducing daily sedentary time literally reduces cell aging, which means you will live longer and be more healthy


What can we do about it?


When you first start standing, you will likely need to relearn how to stand, how to sit, and how to walk.  Incorporating four minor modifications to your life will set you and your family on a path for a long, healthy and active lifestyle.

  1. Eliminate non-essential sitting – use a standing desk, take a walk at lunchtime, hold standing meetings

  2. For every 30 minutes you sit, move 2 minutes at a minimum.

  3. Don’t just stand, but stand properly

  4. Learn how to conduct preventative maintenance on your body (10-15 mins per day).


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