Sitting: It’s a killer, according to some reports. There’s no doubt that living a more sedentary lifestyle is linked to being more overweight, which brings with it an increased chance of developing diabetes and other health problems. However, a controversial, British-led study found that prolonged sitting is not associated with an increased risk of dying prematurely. This goes against the United Kingdom’s National Health Service’s (NHS) guidelines, which state that staying seated for too long is bad for your health, regardless of how much you workout.
Taking age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, general health, smoking, exercise regime, alcohol consumption and diet into account, the authors found that, over the very long term, sitting for prolonged periods of time in various situations has no effect on mortality risk.
Lead author Dr. Richard Pulsford from Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter said in a statement: "Our findings suggest that reducing sitting time might not be quite as important for mortality risk as previously publicized and that encouraging people to be more active should still be a public health priority."
The idea that prolonged sitting is indeed detrimental to your health has been reported by many media outlets across the globe, including BBC News, which declared that "Sitting for long periods ‘is bad for your health,'" citing a study by Leicester and Loughborough Universities. This research states that even with exercise, there is a strong correlation between inactivity and a future diabetes diagnosis.
CNN quite dramatically reported a similar finding with a piece titled "Sitting will kill you, even if you exercise," referencing research in the Annals of Internal Medicine that looked at 47 studies investigating the link between sitting and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other afflictions.
The Guardian reported last year on a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that made the same claim, but provided a little more detail on the potential underlying mechanism. Telomeres – the caps at the end of our chromosomes, like the plastic tips on shoelaces – are designed to protect our chromosomes from degradation. They shorten with each division, and when they reach a critical length, the cell stops dividing. Truncated telomeres are associated with diseases related to aging, including heart disease and diabetes, and prolonged sitting has been found to reduce their length.
So it must be true: Sitting for prolonged periods of time – at work, driving to and from work, at home, and so forth – outweighs the benefits that short bursts of exercise bring, right? Well, not according to the new study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
Following more than 5,000 subjects for 16 years – making it one of the longest follow-up studies in this field of research – the scientists at the University of Exeter found no causal link between prolonged sitting and an increased risk of dying. The lack of any physical activity at all, as other studies have shown, is the factor most associated with dying prematurely.
"Our study overturns current thinking on the health risks of sitting and indicates that the problem lies in the absence of movement rather than the time spent sitting itself," said Dr. Melvyn Hillsdon, one of the authors of the study. "Any stationary posture where energy expenditure is low may be detrimental to health, be it sitting or standing."
Essentially, it’s the lack of any movement at all, not sitting, that leads to future health problems. If in doubt then, you can always have a bit of a fidget.