Man sitting at deesk

Phot: Pexels

Why sitting is not the new smoking: It’s time to clear the air

Have you been warned that “sitting is the new smoking?” We look at the facts that gave rise to phrase and evaluate how true that statement is.

Man sitting at deesk

Phot: Pexels

Sitting is not the new smoking. Despite how hip you may feel when exclaiming it loudly from your standing desk, the two habits are very different.

And the new catchphrase can do more harm than good.

Both are unhealthy and you can certainly improve your health by stopping smoking and sitting less, however, they are not comparable. 

According to a recent analysis of media, it was found that there are almost 300 articles claiming that sitting is the new smoking

As with all claims related to health which can influence people’s behaviour and health choices, one needs to be wary when making such grandiose claims. 

Let’s look at the data, shall we?

How much sitting is too much sitting?

What does it mean to be sedentary?

Sedentary behaviours require minimal effort.

They are usually accumulated during evenings and weekends. 

If you take less than 5000 steps a day you are considered to live a sedentary lifestyle. 

And a sedentary lifestyle comes with a host of health problems. 

But the classification of this is not as easy as just looking at the number of steps you take. It is dependant on how much your lounge.

For instance, if you tackle or 5000 steps in one bout of exercise and spend the rest of the day in your chair, you will be more sedentary than active. 

So even if you exercise quite regularly and consider yourself active, depending on the rest of your habits, you may, in fact, be sedentary. 

According to the America Journal of Public Health adults typically spend nine hours per day sitting. Older adults are sedentary, on average, 10 hours per day.

The hours that are spent inactive have been associated with an increased risk for:

  • weight gain
  • diabetes
  • cholesterol problems
  • premature death. 

The effects of sitting

For those of us deskbound for most of the day, the research is not in our favour. 

It has been reported that sitting can almost double the risk of type two diabetes.

Sitting also increases the occurrence and mortality risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease by ten to 20%. 

Sitting has also been found to negatively impact the risk of depression and symptoms that are associated with it.

However, it is not all doom and gloom and there are benefits to sitting like relaxation and socialization. Sitting around a dinner table and enjoying each others company isn’t a bad habit. 

In fact, on the opposite end of the spectrum, too much standing can be harmful as well.

The effects of smoking

“Smoking has been defined as one of the greatest public health disasters of the 20th century.”

Evaluating the Evidence on Sitting, Smoking, and Health: Is Sitting Really the New Smoking?

The list of diseases associated with smoking and the rate of occurrence far outnumber those associated with sitting. 

The consequences of smoking are heart disease, lung disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, respiratory diseases (e.g., sleep apnea, asthma exacerbations), productive problems, and at least 12 different cancers. 

According to the World Health Organization, Mortality Database eliminating smoking would increase life expectancy by 2 and a half years for men and one year for women.

Eliminating sitting more than three hours per day increased average life expectancy by 0.23 years.

Second-hand smoke

Unlike smoking, sitting does not adversely affect the health of those around you. 

“Sitting has no comparable capacity to affect the health of others.”

Evaluating the Evidence on Sitting, Smoking, and Health: Is Sitting Really the New Smoking?

Between the years 1964 and 2014, 2.5 million nonsmokers died from second smoke-related problems and we cannot choose to avoid second-hand smoke as easily as it is to avoid sitting. 

Addiction vs Habit

We also need to be aware and take into consideration is that smoking is an addictive behaviour whereas sitting is a habit.

The nicotine in cigarette smoke is highly addictive. The dependency which develops then causes withdrawal symptoms when one is trying to quit.

Whereas the amount of sitting we do is based on our the designs of our environments and lifestyles we have developed and adopted.

We sit when we work, we sit when we commute, we sit down as a way to relax from a long day at work where we have spent the last 6 hours sitting. 


Smoking and sitting are two activities that do not contribute to our overall well being but we cannot equate the two. 

It is misleading to call sitting the new smoking. Given that most of the populations’ information about health and wellness comes from mass media this makes it irresponsible. 

Many may use this available information to make healthy decisions and may end up distorting and trivialising the risks of smoking.

We are aware that you are more likely to successfully change your sitting habit than addictive behaviour such as smoking. 

But at the end of the day, if the information gets you to move more, it is a win.

If you do find yourself sitting more than you would like, there are some things you can do to get yourself sitting less and moving more.

Steps to break the habit of sitting

60–75 minutes per day of moderate to intense exercise can reduce the risk associated with sitting time.

Unfortunately, research shows that most of us can barely manage 30 minutes of activity so this may be too much to ask. Aim for 60 but if you manage 30 minutes, give yourself a high five and aim to add some more minutes next time.

Create small habits that will get you moving throughout the day.

During your lunch break, go for a walk. Host a “walking meeting” instead of a sit-down meeting.

This will also help to increase energy levels and helps clear your head.

Make it a habit to get up at least once during an hour or use a standing desk. Research has indicated that the perfect ratio is that for every 25 minutes of sitting you should get up and move for five. 

Take the stairs, go the bathroom furthest away from your desk or chat to your boss or colleague instead of sending an email.