Dangers of Sitting

By | Updated Aug 22, 2017 10:48 AM UTC

Many health experts think the most dangerous thing most of us do every day is sit down. Like smoking, they believe, prolonged sitting is deleterious, and not something that can be balanced out by vigorous exercise when sitting time is done. Dozens of studies have drawn connections between sitting too long and diabetes, hypertension, some forms of cancer (especially in women), anxiety and a generally greater probability of early death. There’s also the risk of a weak, flat backside. It’s no wonder then that more and more people are raising their computer monitors to work standing up. But anyone with a dusty big blue ball in the attic knows that unconventional desk trends don’t necessarily last. Already, all the reports about the dangers of sitting have been answered with contradictory findings that it’s not so bad. And whether standing desks help is a subject of some dispute.

The Situation

Desks that can be adjusted to rise and fall as workers get up and sit down again are the fastest growing office perk in the U.S., offered, according to one poll, by 44 percent of companies, a tripling since 2013. They are already common in Scandinavia, and about 16 percent of German workers have them. Soon enough, some of these desks will be fitted with sensors that monitor sitting time and vibrate softly to nudge users who have been on their behinds too long. One aficionado — James Levine, the doctor who coined the admonition “sitting is the new smoking” — pushed the trend further by inventing the treadmill desk, which like the standing desk has been embraced by some users and abandoned by others.

Online source for data is here

The Background

The many people now toiling on their feet may not realize it, but they’re standing in the footsteps of their 19th-century office-worker forebears, who used high desks that didn’t adjust downward for sitting. In modern times, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Donald Rumsfeld all worked on their feet, but the trend toward sitting picked up steam in the 20th-century, as fewer and fewer people made their living by physical labor. Public health experts have been sounding alarms practically ever since. A study comparing drivers with conductors working for the London Transport Executive, conducted from 1949 to 1952, found that the more active conductors had a much lower risk of heart disease. That just stands to reason: When a body sits for an extended time, blood pools in the legs, and the arteries there lose some of their ability to dilate. Metabolism slows, and with it the healthy functioning of various biochemical operations. That in turn leaves the body more vulnerable to the physical and psychological effects of sedentary living. Standing desks are meant to help office workers dodge this fate, but avoiding so much sitting isn’t the same thing as moving around.

The Argument

Cut sitting time to less than three hours a day, one group of researchers found, and you could lengthen your life expectancy by two years. Some researchers have found connections between sitting too long and disease even in runners and other active people. But contradictory research — also well conducted — has found that sitting is bad only for total couch potatoes, that vigorous exercise, even if it’s only for a couple of hours on the weekend, actually can eliminate the risk of death associated with sitting. Researchers also disagree on whether standing desks do anything to help workers burn more calories, or boost their productivity. Some point out that standing too long creates problems of its own: swollen ankles, leg cramps, varicose veins, posture problems, lasting muscle fatigue and back pain. Also, it turns out that some people who use standing desks at work compensate for their efforts by exercising less in their free time. The best way for desk jockeys to avoid the sitting trap, research shows, is to not just stand but walk around — for a couple of minutes once an hour, or for five or 10 minutes a few times a day. This gets the blood and breath flowing moderately. Toe tapping and other kinds of fidgeting help, as well, whether sitting or standing.

The Reference Shelf 

  • A University of Toronto study on sedentary time.
  • A National Cancer Institute study on sedentary behavior and mortality.
  • A University of Cambridge study on whether physical activity can make up for prolonged sitting.
  • Cornell University’s guidelines for creating an ergonomic computer workstation.
  • A Time magazine article, “Sitting Is Killing You.”
  • An article from The Guardian, “Is standing up the new sitting down?”


First published Aug. 22, 2017

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Mary Duenwald in New York at mduenwald@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net