Sit­ting: It isn’t re­ally worse than smok­ing

The Times-Tribune - - HEALTH & SCIENCE - BY FAYE FLAM FAYE FLAM is a Bloombern opin­ion colum­nist. she has writ­ten for the economist, The new York Times, The washin­nton Post, Psy­cholony To­day, sci­ence and other pub­li­ca­tions. she has a den­ree in Neo­physics from the Cal­i­for­nia in­sti­tute of Tech­nolo

Some health mes­sages such as “sit­ting is the new smok­ing” spread not be­cause they’re true, but be­cause they’re catchy and tweet­able.

And when pro­mot­ing a new health scare, com­par­isons are al­ways use­ful for rais­ing alarm.

“Sit­ting is more dan­ger­ous than smok­ing, kills more peo­ple than HIV and is more treach­er­ous than parachut­ing. We are sit­ting our­selves to death,” said one ex­pert in the Los Angeles Times.

It’s a great quote to show to wor­ried fam­ily mem­bers if you want to go parachut­ing. But oth­er­wise, this sort of thing can make it seem point­less to even try to live a healthy lifestyle.

You work hard to quit smok­ing only to learn your of­fice chair will kill you.

Matt Bu­man, health re­searcher at Ari­zona State Univer­sity, said he and some col­leagues de­cided to try to put “sit­ting is the new smok­ing” to the test.

He told me he agrees with the ev­i­dence that sit­ting too much is a health hazard.

There have been stud­ies show­ing that peo­ple who spend more time sit­ting are more likely to die ear­lier from var­i­ous chronic dis­eases than are peo­ple who sit less.

But is sit­ting re­ally as bad as or worse than smok­ing?

“We looked at the lit­er­a­ture and com­pared the ef­fect sit­ting has on var­i­ous health out­comes, in­clud­ing early car­dio­vas­cu­lar death, di­a­betes and some can­cers, and com­pared the ef­fect smok­ing has,” he said. “Smok­ing is much worse.”

They pub­lished their find­ings in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Pub­lic Health.

A harm­ful mes­sage

The peo­ple pro­mot­ing the sit­ting scare may have been us­ing other sta­tis­tics, but it’s fair to say that there’s no sci­en­tific con­sen­sus that sit­ting is worse than smok­ing.

The mes­sage wasn’t an in­ven­tion of the me­dia, Bu­man said, but came from re­searchers try­ing to raise aware­ness.

Aware­ness is good, but over­play­ing a scare is only go­ing to get peo­ple to tune out or dis­trust sci­en­tists.

Ev­ery­body sits, and ev­ery­body dies, and teas­ing out the ex­act cause-and-ef­fect re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two is not a sim­ple mat­ter.

There’s a body of ev­i­dence show­ing ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise, and harms of be­ing seden­tary.

And there’s rea­son to be­lieve that for those of us with desk jobs, it’s ben­e­fi­cial to get up pe­ri­od­i­cally — un­less it’s to go out and smoke.

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