Sitting is Not the New Smoking

RJ Burr, DC - Updated on April 18th, 2023

Sitting is the new smoking they say. Take a bird's eye view of your daily physical habits, and you'll see why:

Eating a meal.

Driving a car.

At work.

Watching TV.

Waiting in the lobby.

Even doing your business on the porcelain throne.

Sit, sit, sit, sit, sit.

Modern conveniences have made it challenging to stay active. Even places where we are typically active have become triggers to our human laziness. Do you take the stairs or the elevator?

Survey says, "elevator".

To utilize modern convenience is ingrained in our subconscious. You have to make a mindful decision to be more physically active.

It's another decision to make. It takes energy. It burns calories. It's simple but not necessarily easy.

Chronic sitting is brand spanking new in our ancestral history. Our bodies have not yet evolved to accommodate it, nor should they.

Think about it: we used to dedicate full days to hunt for our next meal. Today we're almost at the point where a pizza can be drop-shipped to your doorstep by a drone.

The former is like the Iditarod (a famous dog sled race in Alaska), where the latter is equivalent to wiping your own behind. The physical exertion required is the difference between player versus spectator at a sporting event.

Because we sit so much, we have these colossal cinderblock boxes crammed with hunks of steel on every corner. They're called "gyms."

There was a time where "work" was your exercise. Farmers didn't need to go to the gym. Heck, there's even an exercise called a "Farmer's Carry!"

Nowadays, the physical activity required for work is minimal. We need a gym membership to dedicate time for activity. A gym membership is as standard as carrying a cell phone. Like cell phones, you may even have two of them. It’s sad.

American's activity levels are decreasing, and subsequently, waistlines are increasing. Does it surprise you that back pain is the leading cause of disability?

No wonder they say sitting is the new smoking. Chronic inactivity is making us fat and unhealthy.

But, like smoking, is sitting inherently bad for us? Not entirely. The problem is how much.

The Move to Sit Less

In the current workplace, we're seeing a push toward a modern environment.

What once used to be a sterile space of cubicles, ceiling tiles, and fluorescent lighting is evolving into trendy communal workspaces with adaptive workstations, ergonomic office equipment, and even nap stations.

Let's call it "Googled" workplaces if you will.

Regardless, chairs still exist and aren't going anywhere anytime soon. But chairs aren't the problem, it's our behavior.

Sitting for an hour is not an issue — our bodies are more resilient than that. Sitting for hours at a time, eight hours per day, five days per week is an issue. And that's not counting the weekend.

We can change our behavior. But how easy is it to change a habit?

Not to mention, we're biologically hardwired to conserve energy when our life isn't at stake. Back in the day, we had to expend a lot of energy to survive. When we weren't hunting, gathering, climbing, fighting, or building, we conserved energy for the next bout of survival.

Our bodies are responding to our environment in the way they're supposed to. The reason we resist exercise is that there is no trigger to survive. Why spend the energy if it's not for survival?

The problem is that our modern environment has changed faster than our genome. We're wired for primitive times, but living in a modern era.

We have to change our biologically programmed behaviors. Yup, you read it right.

If we want to "hack" our hardwiring living in the modern world, we need to be smart and strategic.

Move More, Move Often

"Take care of your pennies, and your dollars will take care of themselves." - Scottish Proverb

Do you know how they say the little things add up?

We've all heard it:
Take the stairs.
Park further away.
Take 10,000 steps per day.
Get your heart pumping.
Stand up and move every hour.

They're all tried and true ways to implement more movement in your life.

But they're simple. Too simple. So we prematurely dismiss them.

The little things add up. Consistency in your actions is the key. However, just because it seems simple, it does not mean it's easy.

"Behavioral change does not have to become complicated. Achieving meaningful and lasting change may be simple — simpler than we imagine. But simple is far from easy." - Marshall Goldsmith

There are plenty of simple options to learn new habits, other than just "take the stairs".

Any movement is good. There's no such thing as a bad movement.

Move more, move often. Variability and capacity. Do a variety of stuff, and increase your ability to do more of it.

It's simple but not necessarily easy. Here are some ideas:

  • Take the flipping stairs!
  • Skip steps (two at a time) on the stairs.
  • Park your car in the furthest spot from the building.
  • Replace a 2-minute drive with a 5-10 minute brisk walk.
  • Use an app to monitor and limit leisurely screen time.
  • Play with your kids at the park, e.g., monkey bars.
  • Do planks or push ups before and after a meal (10 push ups at a time for three meals is 60 push ups. 60 push ups every day is a phenomenal habit).
  • Every time you pick up something from the floor, squat instead.
  • Carry your luggage like a suitcase as opposed to rolling it through the terminal.
  • Twerk in your seat. No, I'm not kidding.
  • Use a standing desk or, preferably, a convertible desk — periodic changing of positions is key as prolonging either sitting or standing is ideal.
  • Take a knee at your desk. Or drop a knee off the edge of your chair where one butt cheek stays on the seat. Use a cushion for your knee, if needed. Change sides periodically. Kneeling is a childhood development milestone at 11 months — completely natural and keeps your back in a neutral position without thinking about it.
  • Develop your movement practice by enrolling in one of my free courses.
  • Follow these three posture tips:
    • Get up and move
    • Drink more water
    • Set a timer for micro-breaks

We tell ourselves we'll make healthy changes, but willpower only goes so far. Let’s pretend you had a terrible night's sleep because you binged on streaming the night before. THAT never happens. What happens the next day when you're exhausted and faced with the decision of stairs versus elevator? Willpower loses.

Author and behavioral psychologist, Benjamin Hardy, goes as far as to say, "Willpower doesn't work."

To make lasting long-term changes, you need to start small. I mean super small. Laughably small.

As Chris Kresser put it, you need to "shrink the change" when attempting to change habits.

Start with a low barrier to entry. Pick one activity to start implementing, then stick to it — only one.

Make sure they are SMART goals. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely.

I will take the stairs rather than the elevator whenever I arrive and leave the office, every day for one week.

Is it specific? Yes: take the stairs.

Is it measurable? Yes: stairs opposed to the elevator to and from the office.

Is it achievable? Hell yes. Almost too achievable where you brush it off as nonsense — don't do it!

Is it realistic? Yes: taking the stairs opposed to the elevator is making a simple choice.

Is it timely? Yes: one week. What have you got to lose?

Don't concern yourself with being perfect. You will get off track, and that's okay. As you fail, you'll learn. Heighten awareness by identifying the situation, then get back on track and move on.

After one week of achieving your SMART goal, you keep doing it because it's easy. You've been doing it. It has become a habit.

By creating habits, you'll build confidence. Once you've established a habit, start creating the next one. Daily movement practice in your life will become the norm in no time.

Sit, sit, sit becomes move, sit, move.

You begin to notice you don't feel stiff as a board when you stand up from the chair. You don't walk like you have a stick up your ass. You no longer have that crick in the neck, which prompts, "Hey honey, would you please rub my shoulders?"

Your body doesn't feel like hot garbage.

Wrapping it Up

Look, none of this stuff is sexy — I get it. You could take a primitive approach by going "off the grid". God forbid if you have to give up checking Insta stories.

What we once had to do to survive has been replaced by modern conveniences. Our environment has changed, but our biology has not.

It's not our fault — we're programmed this way.

But willpower is not enough.

We need to set goals. SMART goals. Then shrink your SMART goals.

Modify your environment. Remove the triggers that cause the behavior(s) you're trying to change. Otherwise, the triggers will win — every time.

Or you could risk living a life with chronic back pain. I’m not kidding. I see it every day.

Is sitting the new smoking? I would clarify chronic sitting, or lack of activity is the new smoking.

The costs go beyond monetary. The effects of long-term sitting and inactivity have severe health implications that are startlingly similar to smoking.

Too many people are going down that path. But you don’t have to. Habitual activity won’t save your life, but you can bet your bottom dollar it will save your lifestyle.

Like smoking, inactivity is a slow killer. You know deep down inside you should change your behavior, but you don’t bat an eye. Change is hard. It’s easy to sit. It’s easy to conserve energy. It’s easy to be lazy.

What’s hard is living a life with chronic pain and immobility.

Before you know it, it’s too late. In your younger years, you could move but preferred not to. Now you want to move, but you can’t.

Wishing they could play with their kids is a real thing for too many people.

“I’m sorry, honey. But mommy can’t get down on the floor because she won’t be able to get back up.”

Like so many, don’t look back on your life thinking about what could have been.

You have time. The time is now.

Make the first move.

Take the first step.

Because they add up.