Emily Heath, Clinical Research and Outreach Nurse at The Hormel Institute.

Sitting. It seems harmless, right? It’s something we do every day while working, watching TV, or just taking a break to relax. 

But did you know that sitting for prolonged periods of time is now considered “the new smoking?” 

Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with many health concerns, including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and unhealthy cholesterol levels. 

For many of us, reducing how much time we spend sitting is easier said than done. Here’s a look at what we know about sitting’s effect on the body — and ways we can mitigate some of the harmful effects.

The research on sitting

Recently, researchers analyzed 13 studies on sitting time and activity levels and found that those who sat for more than eight hours a day and didn’t engage in physical activity had a risk of dying similar to that posed by obesity and smoking. 

One 2023 study from the European Heart Journal found that even sleeping is better for your cardiovascular health than sitting. 

Another study of more than 480,000 people found that those who spent most of their time sitting at work had a:

  • 16% higher chance of dying from any cause
  • 34% greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease

These results remained true even after researchers factored in age, gender, education, smoking, drinking and body weight.

Why is prolonged sitting so bad for health?

Unfortunately, although we know that prolonged sitting is harmful for your health, we aren’t yet totally clear on why. 

Some researchers have speculated that part of the explanation is that while we are sitting, we aren’t using our leg muscles, which are some of the biggest muscles in the body. 

Muscles serve as important regulators of blood sugar, because when you move, your muscles use blood sugar for energy. This lowers your blood sugar level and helps your body use insulin better. Moving your muscles also helps improve circulation, and regular exercise has shown to reduce blood pressure significantly. 

The more you exercise, the more efficient your heart gets at pumping, and more nitric oxide is released into your bloodstream — and both these factors lower blood pressure. 

Is there anything we can do?

Although this correlation is not fully understood, we do know there are things we can do to help reverse the effects of sitting.

One study found that people who walked for five minutes every half hour had lower blood sugar and blood pressure than those who sat continuously. This strategy also affected how these study participants’ bodies responded to large meals. They had a 58% reduction in blood pressure spikes compared with those who sat all day. 

Another study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that replacing just 30 minutes of sitting time a day, with any kind of physical activity — light, moderate, or vigorous intensity — on a daily basis can help you live longer. 

Would a standing desk help?

One thing I was curious about is something that has gained popularity in recent years: having a standing desk. There is evidence that although standing seems better than sitting, being in one position all day, whether it be standing or sitting, is not good. There are also reports that they could potentially be harmful to your back and the blood vessels in your legs without enough movement breaks.

If you want to do something little that can have big health benefits: Set a timer for 30 minutes and get up and do some sort of activity for five minutes. During the course of an eight-hour work day, you could get in up to 70 minutes of walking! 

And if you think your workplace may not like the 70 minutes you are walking: Let them know that a significant amount of research shows that walking helps employees be healthier, and healthier employees take fewer sick days, less time off work for doctor visits, and can even help lower group insurance rates. Not only that, but walking can help enhance creativity and problem solving, help resolve conflicts, and build social skills — all things any workplace would be happy to have more of.