Sitting as the New Smoking: Can Leisure-Time Running Help?

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Can leisure-time running eliminate the negative effects of sitting as the new smoking? Sitting as the New Smoking: Can Leisure-Time Running Help?

One of the latest health warnings is almost a bit too close for comfort. And if you haven’t heard it yet, here it is: Sitting is regarded by some as the new smoking. In other words, doing what comes as part and parcel of a nine-to-five desk job, is bad for your health. Ouch.

As runners, most of us are pretty good about leading healthy lifestyles. A lot of us don’t smoke. We exercise. We follow healthy, balanced diets. And we’re diligent about getting enough rest. But sitting at a desk for eight or nine hours a day? That’s one thing most of us have little say over. Add to that additional time spent driving to work, watching TV and surfing the net, and we’re undeniably guilty.

So the question is this: Is leisure-time running enough to counteract the negative health impacts of prolonged sitting? And what else can we do to escape the claws of this so-called pandemic? Fortunately the picture is less somber than you think. And yes, there’s a lot you can do to avoid becoming a statistic.

Why Sitting Is Regarded by Some as the New Smoking

But before we spring into action, let’s get to the bottom of why prolonged sitting is bad for us. Firstly, it comes as no surprise that inactivity is a killer. In fact, 9% of all premature deaths worldwide can be attributed to inactivity. Secondly, prolonged sitting has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, breast and colon cancer, heart disease and even depression. Even for runners. Sobering stuff, right?

Which brings us to why too much sitting has been likened to smoking. According to Travis Saunders, exercise physiologist at the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, it is very possible to meet current physical activity guidelines while still being very sedentary otherwise. Says Saunders: “[Sitting] … is a bit like smoking. Smoking is bad for you even if you get lots of exercise. So is sitting too much”.

And what exactly does too much sitting do to the body? Professor Marc Hamilton, director of the Inactivity Physiology Department of Pennington Biomedical Research Center, says that prolonged sitting causes the body to shut down at a metabolic level. Immobile muscles basically cause circulation to slow, which means that less blood sugar is used and less fat burnt. Which, in turn, contributes to an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

And while the negative effects of prolonged sitting are hard to ignore, you’ll be happy to know that not all researchers agree on it being likened to smoking.

Is Leisure-Time Running Enough to Counteract the Negative Impacts of Prolonged Sitting?

Professional disagreements aside, are you, as a runner, exempt from the negative health impacts of sitting too much? Again, according to some researchers, no. A 2012 study that focused on data gathered from 222 497 Australian residents aged 45 and over found prolonged sitting to be a risk factor for all-cause mortality, regardless of individuals’ physical activity levels. In fact, for this study, the relationship between prolonged sitting and all-cause mortality appeared to be consistent across sexes, age groups, body mass index categories and physical activity levels. Now that’s what we call bad news, right? And it gets even worse. The relationship between prolonged sitting and all-cause mortality was also consistent across healthy study participants compared to participants with preexisting cardiovascular issues and/or diabetes.

In contrast, a 2015 study of 3720 men and 1412 women, with more than 81 373 person-years of follow-up, found no association whatsoever between sitting time and all-cause mortality risk. An outcome which, some believe, may have been attributed to the relatively high activity levels of study participants. The study concluded that “policy makers and clinicians should be cautious about placing emphasis on sitting behavior as a risk factor for mortality that is distinct from the effect of physical activity”.

So while it is clear that researchers of the subject don’t all see eye to eye, three things are certain. Number one: This is an extremely complex issue, intertwined with factors like individuals’ food choices and socio-economic status. Number two: Many experts agree that most individuals are not running, walking or moving around enough to counteract the harm resulting from prolonged daily sitting. And number three: The countless benefits of leisure-time running, viewed independently from prolonged sitting, cannot be denied. So don’t be tempted to altogether give up and retire your running shoes in a state of despair. More research on the matter is sure to follow and will hopefully shed new light.

Additional Measures to Consider

If leisure-time running isn’t regarded (by some) as being 100% effective in thwarting the negative impacts of prolonged sitting, what is? One of the first possible solutions that pops to mind, is the use of standing desks. Surely standing should be better than sitting, right? Maybe not. In addition to various obvious disadvantages, like discomfort, foot pain and the pooling of the blood in the legs, the use of standing desks have only been associated with a small number of short-term improvements in physiological outcomes.

Treadmill desks, on the other hand, appear to be more effective. They do, however, come with the downside of decreased productivity and motor ability. And the fact that not all workplaces have the budget or space to provide all employees with treadmill desks.

So what are you to do? Plenty, actually. Why not try one of the strategies listed below in addition to your leisure-time running?

  • Commute to and from work if practical.
  • Replace your office chair with an exercise ball.
  • Take lunchtime runs, if practical. If not, go for a stroll outside, weather permitting.
  • Hold walking meetings with clients and colleagues, weather permitting.
  • Always take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator.

  • Replace coffee breaks with short walks.
  • Make frequent posture changes.
  • Walk over to colleagues to discuss issues instead of sending emails.
  • Walk to client meetings, if practical.

In Closing

So if you dream of clocking new PBs by night, but are bound to a desk job by day, you have your work cut out for you. Keep on running, but be sure to put in extra effort to incorporate (plenty of) activity into your workday as well. And why not discuss the potential of building a more physically active workplace culture with your employer? You might just pave the way to a healthier, more active future for your fellow colleagues as well.