New Research on Sitting: Relax! It’s Not So Bad After All

Tracy's favourite chair -- the eames molded plywood chair by Herman Miller, in red. A stylish sleek and low to the ground chair.
My favourite chair: the eames molded plywood chair by Herman Miller. In red.
There is new research on sitting and the news is that the research that said it would kill us is wrong. Here it is:

The study, from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, examined 3,720 men and 1,412 women who didn’t have heart disease and were part of a long-term U.K. health study.

The participants had provided info about how long they spent sitting each week — while they were at work, during leisure time, or when they were watching television — during the late 1990s. They were then followed for 16 years to see what happened.

The researchers found no evidence that sitting, whether at home or at work, is tied to an increased risk of dying.

The study is published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

There are few bits of everyday rhetoric that set my teeth on edge more than “sitting is the new smoking” or “chairs are evil.” Why? Because whatever the research on prolonged sitting (and the research that it’s bad for us has now been called into question. See “Sitting All Day Long May Not Be a Death Sentence after All), it is decidely not the new smoking. And whatever health issues chair design may contribute to, which, I say again, have now been cast in a more dubious light (see “Couch Potatoes Rejoice: Sitting for Long Periods is NOT Bad for Your Health, Study Says“), they may be many things but they are not evil.

The Nazis are evil. Serial killers are evil. Dr. Evil is evil.

But chairs? Let’s not moralize them, please. They may not be for everyone, but for some people, they’re the best bet for mobility and getting around in the world. For others they are an essential piece of furniture or equipment. Calling them an evil fails to recognize that being able to choose whether to sit, stand, or walk is itself ableist privilege.

And the analogy with smoking also has to go. Smoking is conclusively bad for your health. And while you might feel free to indulge if that’s what you want to do — I don’t believe we are obligated to look after our health — it is also bad for the health of the people around you. It’s bad for the health of the planet. I do think we have some responsibilities towards others and the planet. Sitting does none of these harmful things. Therefore, it is not the new smoking.

It’s also not clear that there just one solution that’s best for everyone. Yet the devotees of the research that says sitting is bad for our health have latched onto it with almost religious fervour (hence, the language of “evil”). There’s always an air of self-righteousness around the pronouncement that sitting is bad for you — “you don’t sit all day, do you?” is asked in about the same way as food purists scornfully ask, “you don’t drink juice, do you?”  That’s the one that prompted me to write “Why Food Is Beyond Good and Evil” over two years ago.

Anyway, call me overly sensitive, but the whole evangelical line about sitting has just never felt quite right to me. One reason is that, and I grant you this is anecdotal, though I do like to get up and stretch and walk around, I simply cannot imagine standing all day at a desk.  I did a weekend long stint at the Ontario Universities’ Fair at the end of September, standing on my feet for eight hours a day, three days in a row. By the end of the first day my feet were on fire and my lower back was killing me.  Maybe it’s a great alternative for some people, but I think a lot of cashiers and people in retail and people who spend a lot of time at trade shows standing in more or less the same place might have a different opinion, indeed, might welcome a place to rest their weary bones throughout the day.

And it’s not clear anyway that standing is any better for you than sitting according to “Sitting down at work is no worse for you than standing up, study claims.”  This article reports findings from the same University of Exeter study, and questions the health benefits of sit-stand work stations:

Sitting down is no worse for you than standing up as long as you take regular exercise, a study has claimed, casting doubt on the health benefits of sit-stand work stations.

Note that it also calls into doubt the claim about “sedentary athletes.” These are athletes who are basically couch-bound when they are not working out. The alarming news in the anti-sitting camp was that these people cannot reverse the alleged ill-health effects of sitting even if they’re super-active. The new finding is that with regular exercise you might just be okay, even if you sit a lot, or stand a lot.

Since “[t]he research found there was no influence on mortality risk for participants from sitting at work, during leisure time or watching television,” we can all relax a bit about the whole sitting-will-kill-you scare.

Yes, they still recommend breaking it up with some walking around every 30 minutes or so if you can. It’s good to stretch and change up your position from time to time if you can. But the castrophizing about the impact of sitting on our lifespan is simply not well-supported by the research.

And it moralizes something that for one thing is relaxing and for another is essential in the lives of many people. I’m not saying that there aren’t reasons for those who can to move around, to switch it up, to walk away from their desks if they work sitting in an office.

But to couch (yes, I know) all of that in moralistic language the makes chairs into enemies and sitting into something akin to a public health offense is just resorting to a moralized rhetoric that feels designed to shame people who sit.

No one is saying someone who chooses not to use chairs, or who prefers not to sit, or who experiences aches and pains and discomfort from prolonged sitting (and has alternatives available to them) has to sit. By all means, stand all day of that’s comfortable or necessary given your body. But I hope this new research makes people back off of the intensity of the conviction a bit. It’s not like smoking and chairs are not evil.


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