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Sitting is the “New” Smoking

Diabetes, risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease are all health risks associated with smoking, but surprising new evidence is finding that sitting can be just as bad for you, causing the same complications. 

The health risks of sitting too much mostly affect those with desk jobs. Even if you go to the gym in the morning, the amount of sitting you do at work, followed by sitting in front of the TV at home, can outdo that hour of physical activity.

Luckily, inactivity is an easy habit to change.

Listen in as Betsy Cull, M.S gives great advice to help get you up and active.
Sitting is the “New” Smoking
Featured Speaker:
Betsy Cull, M.S. CEP
Betsy Cull is a Cardiac Rehab Coordinator and a Clinical Exercise Physiologist
with Stoughton Hospital Cardiac Rehab and Wellness.

Melanie Cole (Host): Diabetes, risk of stroke, high blood pressure and heart disease are all health risks associated with smoking, but surprising new evidence is finding that sitting can be just as bad for you, causing some of the same complications. My guest today is Betsy Cull. She’s the cardiac rehab coordinator and clinical exercise physiologist at Stoughton Hospital’s Cardiac Rehab and Wellness. Welcome to the show, Betsy. So, “sitting is the new smoking”. What a coined phrase that is. What does it mean?

Betsy Cull (Guest): Hi, Melanie. Thanks for having me. You mentioned some of the traditional risk factors which we know and have been associated with a higher risk of many types of chronic disease. There’s a lot of research coming out right now looking at this idea of sitting, being sedentary--sedentary just meaning being at a sitting or a resting state--and what these effects really have on our health. They’re really finding out quite a bit, how dangerous this can be--just extended periods of sitting and resting. The American Heart Association actually came out with a statement just this past fall published in their journal Circulation looking at what evidence we know so far about extended periods of sitting, and just providing some recommendations on this. I think people are aware that there are--like for example, The Surgeon General of the United States has published some guidelines on how active we should be, looking at how many minutes of physical activity we should get in per week, for example. Usually, like 150 minutes per week is what’s recommended of moderate activity but there hasn’t been a lot of research really looking at how much we should be limiting our sedentary behavior. So, this is an area that some new research is focusing on.

Melanie: Tell us about that research and what they found out.

Betsy: Well, one thing we’ve found is to kind of get a baseline on understanding how active the average American really is during their day. On a good night, we maybe sleep for six to eight hours ideally. The National Health and Nutrition Examination and Survey was done, and they looked at how much time the average American spends sitting in their day. On average, we spend about six to eight hours sitting. That can be anything from watching TV or watching a play, working at your desk. We also see that adults, as we get older, so adults above 60 actually, sit for even longer—so, about eight and a half to nine and a half hours. So, that’s quite a bit. And the reason this is bad, is that--

Melanie: Wow, it sure is.

Betsy: Yes. I mean, there tends to be--what they have found is that there is a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and just overall mortality. So, people that sit more die earlier and more frequently. They done another study looking at--the AARP had funded a study. They followed 240,000 middle-aged adults for about eight and a half years, and they looked at people that replaced some of this time spent sitting with active chores or exercise and did this help? Did this help them to live longer or to see positive changes in their health. The research really does support that. So, the more active we can be, it does seem that it definitely has some positive effects.

Melanie: So, Betsy, if somebody is somebody who goes to work out and they’re an early morning exerciser and they do a great, hard work out or if they would like to work out after work, does that sitting all day in front of a computer or at their desk negate their workout or does their workout take the place of that sitting? How does that work?

Betsy: Well, I’d love to say if you workout in the morning that you’re set for the rest of the day but the research really doesn’t support that. So, while that exercise-- we talked about meeting that 150 minutes a week of exercise--that is great. There are significant health benefits from doing that but, unfortunately, it doesn’t allow us the benefit of getting on that half hour walk in the morning and then sitting the rest of the day. So, the studies still indicate that prolonged periods of sitting, even if you’ve worked out earlier in the day, but still sitting for long periods has a lot of negative health effects. It slows your metabolism, it sets you up for diabetes, things like that. So, what you can do during the day, if you’re working, for example, at a desk job and it’s hard to get up and be active as often as you like, you can take breaks. So, do different reminders. There are lots of actually wonderful smart phone apps that are coming out now that are fantastic. You can set a customizable work break timer that tells you when to get up. So, just taking those five minute walk breaks, getting up and stretching, doing some strength exercises--anything you can do just to break up those prolonged periods of sitting, it really does make a difference in your health.

Melanie: So, will that make a difference--because the American College of Sports medicine says that you can break that 150 minutes up into 10 minute increments. So, if you get up throughout the day and move around, either plus your workout or instead of your workout, will that make it so that it’s not quite so sedentary?

Betsy: Yes. The research really does support that. And so, as you mentioned, Melanie, there seems to be a minimum number of minutes, so at least 10 minutes chunks of time really are needed to see improvements in fitness and health. So, if you get your walk in, try and do it at least for 10 minutes but it’s perfectly okay to split it up during the day. For a lot of people, it makes meeting of exercise goals more manageable, less intimidating. So, the idea is just to get us up and moving throughout the day and, again, just breaking up those prolonged periods of sitting and being inactive.

Melanie: What do you tell people who say that maybe their boss doesn’t like them to be getting up and down all throughout the day. What are some other things? Have you thought about treadmill desks or those little bicycles you put under your desk to keep your legs moving? Do any of those things help?

Betsy: Yes, yes. Again, the research does support it. It’s all good. Depends on how proactive your workplace might be in doing this and certainly there are lots of portable desks or desks available that encourage you to stand up or you can sit on an exercise ball, you can ride a bike. Those innovations are all out there and if that’s not going to work, then you can rely on some of the things that we all know and have heard before but sometimes forget to implement, but it can be something as simple as walking a piece of paper to your coworker in a different level of the building that you work in as opposed to just sending an email; taking the stairs; parking further away--doing these things that we know but sometimes just need reminders to know that they actually do help and they are important to do.

Melanie: So, give us just a few more tips, Betsy, on sitting is the new smoking and ways for people to help keep sitting from being something that contributes to vascular disease and heart disease and such.

Betsy: Yes, the bottom line is, just as the American Heart says, we need to sit less and move more. So, embrace technology if it applies to you and if it’s something that you enjoy doing. Again, use those smart phone apps to keep reminders to take breaks and be active throughout the day. Sign up for activities with your family where you’re doing things that are active. Go to a park, play games that are active. Make the exercise something that’s a workable part of your day--that you can participate in throughout the day. If you have the time and want to dedicate it, then it’s fantastic to do a dedicated amount of exercise as well. Go for a run or go for a walk or join a sports team. But, our bodies are made to be active, that’s our natural state for our bodies, and when we are active, things work great and they are in balance. We have issues that develop when we’re not as active as we should be. So, it’s important just to stay as active as we can throughout the day and pass that along to our families as well to keep us all healthy.

Melanie: Thank you so much, Betsy. It’s really great information and so important for people to hear especially in this new year. Thanks for being with us today. You're listening to Stoughton Hospital Health Talk. For more information, you can go to That's This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.