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Sitting is the new smoking

January 7, 2015 — 

We all know smoking is harmful to our health, but just how harmful is sitting? The research is sobering. Sedentary behaviour, such as prolonged periods of sitting, has been linked to premature death and increased risk for chronic conditions — regardless of exercise and nutritional habits.

It’s always been thought that a bit of exercise can offset the effects of daily sedentary work styles — the kind in which most of us at the university participate. But U of M’ s Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Health Studies Phil Gardiner says that recent research demonstrates, even more comprehensively, the negative effects of sitting. Exercise just can’t completely make up for long hours of sitting.

This Wednesday evening, Gardiner, who is also director of the Health, Leisure & Human Performance Research Institute at the U of M, moderates a Café Scientifique panel discussion, “Time to get off your butt: Sitting is the new smoking.”

Gardiner says that one of the reasons the topic is so interesting is because of this new research that shows even greater negative impact than was previously understood. “We’ve always thought that if you sit all day at your desk, for eight hours, that you can actually alleviate any problems by going to the gym in the evening,” he says. “Similar to the case with smoking, exercising has little or no impact on reversing the negative effects of sitting for prolonged periods.”


Gardiner: “What they’ve been finding in research is that, in fact, sitting for extended periods is not okay.”


“Many people think that the fact that you are sedentary all day can be sort of negated by going to the gym for an hour and having a good workout, a good sweat, and everything will be okay. What they’ve been finding in research is that, in fact, it’s not okay. The detrimental effects on health, of sitting for a long period of time, appear to be independent of what you do outside of the sitting time. So for people that just went home and did nothing, versus people that, after work, would go out and exercise, the negative effects were similar.


Gardiner: “The detrimental effects on health of sitting for a long period of time appear to be independent of what you do outside of the sitting time.”


He cites epidemiological studies that looked at thousands of records of people, recording the length of daily sitting time in relation to risk factors for chronic disease and mortality.

There’s something about sitting — we don’t know yet what it is — [that does not just come down to the] the fact that you are sedentary; perhaps [it’s] even the body position, we’re not sure. It’s very detrimental to your health when practiced repetitively over long periods.”

He points out that the development of the computer in the past decade or so means that many people spend all day at their desks, and then go home and spend all evening watching TV or working or playing on the computer. In his own research, Gardiner has looked at the effects of decreased activity on rodents. “It impacts nerve cells; they get less excitable and they don’t work as well as they are supposed to work. We have actually found adaptations at the cellular level in the nerve cells when rats experience reductions in their normal activity.

“And,” he adds, “we know from studies with older people that cognitive function decline is related to brain blood flow. When you are sitting in a chair, your blood flow is at its second lowest level after sleeping. This is going to have cognitive impairment effects for [certain populations, such as] older people, especially.”

That’s why education about the issue is so important. “We are in the phase, similar to [education around] smoking, where we need to educate people that sitting for long periods of time everyday, day in and day out, is not good — and to find ways to counter these effects,” he explains.

So, what kinds of interventions are possible?

Gardiner notes that two professors in his home Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management — one of whom will be sharing some of her research at the event — use treadmill workstations. That means that they have their computers set up with a treadmill and they work while at a slow walk all day.

He suggests several other tips:

1. We need to develop a different attitude and lifestyle: We have to understand that it’s bad to sit for long periods of time. A rule of thumb might be ‘you shouldn’t sit longer without interruption than the length of a movie, at the very maximum,’ he says. (“I wouldn’t want to propose less than that, in light of how this would disrupt movie showings!”)

2. Break up prolonged periods of sitting. Every hour or so, get up and go for a 10-minute walk, if feasible — or at least simply stand up and move your body around..

3. Consider walking meetings. Especially when it’s a meeting with a small group of people, says Gardiner, walking meetings are just as effective.


Essentially, he says, “We are going to have to change the ways we do things.”

“I think it’s going to be a very good discussion on Wednesday night,” he says, adding that both the university researchers and the Reh-Fit Centre speaker on the panel will bring their own perspective to this interesting and relevant topic.

— Mariianne Mays Wiebe



The panel takes place at McNally Robinson Booksellers and features Sue Boreskie, CEO of the Reh-Fit Centre and several U of M researchers, including Danielle Bouchard, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Recreation Management, Todd Duhamel, associate professor, Kinesiology & Recreation Management, U of M and principal investigator at the Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences, St-Boniface Hospital Research and Jon McGavock, associate professor, pediatrics & child health, College of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences and scientist at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba (CHRIM), formerly known as Manitoba Institute of Child Health (MICH).


Wednesday, January 14, 7 p.m.

McNally Robinson Booksellers, 1120 Grant Avenue, Winnipeg

To assist in planning seating RSVP to:
Research_Communications [at] umanitoba [dot] ca or 204-474-6689

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