“While excessive sitting is bad for you, it’s not nearly as bad for you as smoking, a new study points out. pixelfit/Getty Images
Media stories claiming that "sitting is the new smoking" are rampant the world over — an analysis found more than 600 with that phrase between 2012 and 2016. But a group of researchers from Canada, Australia and the U.S. set out to analyze existing evidence to prove definitively that sitting is in no way comparable to smoking in terms of public health crisis severity, reach and cost.
"The mass-media enthusiasm for condemning sitting by making comparisons to smoking has far outpaced the available scientific evidence," the scientists write in the study, published in the November 2018 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. "It is obvious from examination of smoking research that sitting and smoking are distinct behaviors with different levels of associated risk."
Excessive sitting isn’t anything to be complacent about, since it is linked to any number of related health issues, like increased diabetes risk and depression. However, the link pales when compared to smoking’s increased risk of premature death and diseases, like cancers of 12 sites, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, CVD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the study authors note. Indeed, smoking is definitively called one of the "greatest public health disasters of the 20th century." The 21st century alone will see a staggering 1 billion smoking-related deaths, with an annual worldwide cost of smoking-attributable disease checking in at $467 billion in 2012 alone, they write.
Although not insignificant, by comparison the cost of physical inactivity was $53.8 billion in 2013. It’s much the same story for health risks. "While people who sit a lot have around a 10-20 percent increased risk of some cancers and cardiovascular disease, smokers have more than double the risk of dying from cancer and cardiovascular disease, and a more than 1,000 percent increased risk of lung cancer," says researcher and University of South Australia epidemiologist Dr. Terry Boyle in a press release.
The report also points out that, while smoking puts others at risk for secondhand smoke problems (2.5 million nonsmokers died of such issues from 1964 to 2014), sitting poses no such threat to others.
"An individual can most often decide to sit, stand, or move. However, an individual often cannot simply choose to avoid second- or thirdhand smoke," they write in the study, adding, "Furthermore, there is no research to suggest that an individual’s sedentary behaviors provide harmful and unavoidable health consequences for another individual."
Now That’s Important
The researchers say that it can be reckless to compare an addictive behavior to something that, although unhealthy, is a habit. "Whereas nicotine addiction is a direct result of smoking, sitting, as is the case for other behaviors (such as eating), is not an addiction," they write in the study. "Sitting is consistent with the definition of habit. Habits are actions or behaviors triggered automatically in response to contextual cues."