Is Too Much Sitting Bad for Your Health?

The human body is inherently designed for motion. Ancient civilizations like the Greeks and Romans recognized the significance of physical activity for overall health, a connection that modern medicine has substantiated concerning regular exercise and disease prevention.

However, it’s only relatively recently that sedentary behaviors, particularly sitting, have been identified as hazards to public health.

The rise of “sitting diseases,” health issues associated with prolonged sitting and inactivity, has become a prominent focus of research. Extensive evidence suggests that spending prolonged periods motionless, even if you exercise regularly, heightens the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and premature mortality, as noted in a 2022 BMJ editorial. Moreover, a cohort study published in January 2023 in the Journal of Affective Disorders also indicates an increased risk for mental health conditions such as depression.

Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia specializing in physical activity, lifestyle, and population health, underscores, “Our biology and genetic composition dictate that humans thrive on movement. Remaining sedentary accelerates physical and mental degeneration, leading to chronic illnesses and premature death.”

Dr. Stamatakis advocates for health authorities to issue formal cautions and recommendations regarding the hazards of excessive sedentary time. This sentiment is echoed by numerous researchers in the field, as outlined in a 2019 review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Further concerning, Stamatakis highlights recent findings suggesting that while sitting poses risks, standing in one place (such as using a stand-up desk) and other forms of inactivity might not substantially improve health.

“Movements are essential,” he emphasizes. “While standing can be part of a healthy routine, on its own, it may not deliver significant benefits or enhance fitness.”

The Claims About Too Much Sitting

The principle is simple: the human body is designed for movement, and prolonged periods of inactivity can result in a variety of adverse health impacts, even if you maintain a regular exercise routine.

Edward Coyle, PhD, who serves as a professor and heads the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, underscores, “The negative consequences of inactivity appear to be distinct from the positive effects of exercise. Even if you adhere to the current exercise recommendations, extended periods of sitting are associated with increased risks of heart disease and mortality.” The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion suggests that adults engage in a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity.

Dr. Coyle stresses that while exercise remains crucial and beneficial, it cannot entirely mitigate the risks associated with prolonged sitting or other sedentary behaviors, much like how exercise cannot protect against the harms of smoking.

“‘Sitting is the new smoking’ gained popularity as a phrase for some time,” he remarks. “I believe there’s truth in that,” he asserts, noting that although sitting is concerning, smoking is undoubtedly more perilous.