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Sitting is the new smoking

Sitting is the new smoking
Sitting is the new smoking

“Sitting is the new smoking,” says James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative. Levine continues, “sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”

Sitting is bad for you for two main reasons. First, too many of us are choosing to sit instead of walking, biking, running, doing yard work or lifting weights. Television, computers, game consoles, phones and tablets seem to have us permanently pinned us to our chairs.

Second, sitting too long is just plain bad for you. It isn’t bad per se — if we sit correctly and for limited durations. However, sitting improperly is bad for our posture and hard on our organs. Sitting for long stretches makes us far more likely to suffer from serious health conditions.

A 2014 article in The Active Times by Diana Gerstacker cites research showing that sitting increases markedly our risk of getting cancer, heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes and having muscle impairment and depression. She refers to a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, “which (found) that sitting for long periods of time increases your risk for colon, endometrial and, possibly, lung cancer.” Shockingly, “even in physically active individuals, sitting increased the risk, and the risk worsened with each two-hour increase in sitting time.”

Gerstacker continues, “Sitting, like smoking, is very clearly bad for our health and the only way to minimize the risk is to limit the time we spend on our butts each day.” And sitting is not offset by exercise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012 only one-quarter of American children ages 12 to 15 got the federally recommended amount of exercise (60 minutes per day). We are witnessing a frightening national epidemic of inactivity. The manifold increase in children’s screen time watching movies or TV, playing video games or engaging with a computer, tablet or smartphone keeps them indoors and sedentary. No wonder obesity is gaining among juveniles and even children under 12. Kids rarely ride their bikes anywhere. Almost all bike trips are taken by adults. Fewer children walk to school or engage in manual labor like working in the family garden. Playing outside for hours at a time as previous generations did as children seems to have been curtailed by parents' concern for their children's security and by the siren song of electronic devices.

People look to schools to provide children with physical activity at recess or in gym classes. They also expect the school system to teach children good nutrition and, to some degree, eating habits. But schools are having difficulty fitting all this in because of the heavy emphasis on teaching and testing reading, math and science. Recently, the Utah State Board of Education removed the requirements for physical education, although it is still part of the state core. It is now up to school districts whether to require physical education. The board was responding to some school districts that have decreased the overall number of class periods in high school, which limits students’ options to take such elective courses as theater, debate and choir and limits opportunities for physical education.

The American lifestyle has become dangerous as many of us — young and old — yield to a state of physical passivity. This is a public health hazard with grave implications for the health and well-being of Americans. If Americans stay on their path of inactivity and poor diet that results in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and depression, it will swamp our health care system and have dire implications for a productive workforce.

For your health and well-being and for your family’s sake, get up and move. Be active with your children and grandchildren. Take them on a hike or to the park and limit screen time — yours and theirs. Try standing at work. Hold walking meetings. Get a stand-up desk. Take the stairs. Get up from your chair every hour and move around. Get a phone app that prompts you to stand up every hour. Walk around during phone conversations. You’ll feel much better.

Remember, “sitting is the new smoking.”

Greg Bell is the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association. He is the former Republican lieutenant governor of Utah.