woman looks tired and uncomfortable while sitting at her desk“Sitting is the new smoking” seemed like a dramatic statement when it was first coined by James A. Levine, MD, PhD. But many medical experts now believe it to be accurate.

The amount of time many Americans spend sitting down each day – whether at a desk, in a car, or in front of a screen for leisure time – creates health risks comparable to those caused by smoking. Levine, who is director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative, believes that people lose up to two hours of life for every hour they spend sitting. “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death,” says Levine.

The Health Risks of Too Much Sitting

The human body is not designed for long periods of sitting. Instead, it works best when it spends a significant portion of time throughout the day standing and walking. These activities keep the blood moving, aid digestion, and allow the body to metabolize nutrients. Sitting also puts strain on the neck and lower back, which are not designed to support the body in a sitting position for long periods.

When we sit, the body’s processes for breaking down fats and sugars properly are stalled. A lack of physical activity can reduce quality of sleep as well, which means the body does not get the rest it needs to repair itself and continue important processes. Poor sleep may also perpetuate the cycle of sedentary behavior – if you’re tired, you’ll probably feel less motivated to be active.

Research has shown that sedentary behavior contributes to obesity and metabolic syndrome, which can increase a person’s blood pressure, blood sugar, body fat, and cholesterol levels. Although some studies have linked excessive sitting to other serious diseases, these health issues likely arise in people who are already dealing with obesity. This means that, even if you do sit during work and/or leisure time, adding exercise and a balanced diet to your day will help reduce many of the health risks associated with sitting.

How to Combat Sedentary Behavior

So how do you reduce your health risks while you’re at work or relaxing at home? The simplified answer is, of course, “sit less, move more.” A few modifications to your routine can make a big difference.

Try a Treadmill or Standing Desk

Dr. Levine invented the treadmill desk to help office workers get more physical activity and avoid some of the health risks associated with too much sitting. If a treadmill desk is not feasible, a standing desk may be an option. Most standing desks feature an adjustable platform to raise your computer to a level that is comfortable to use while standing. The surface can also be brought down to a traditional chair level, but the worker has the option of switching the positions as desired while continuing to work.

Build Standing into Your Routine

If treadmill or standing desks are not an option in your office, you can build other opportunities for standing into your work routine. For instance, stand up while taking phone calls or eating lunch. You may be able to stand while reading material that does not require you to type. If you are going to call another person in your office on the phone, walk over to their desk instead. Make sure you get up and move around for a few minutes at least once an hour, if not more frequently.

Remember to Stand Up at Home

Too much sitting during leisure time is just as unhealthy as it is while working. If you’re watching television, get up and walk around during commercials. Stand intermittently while reading, watching a movie, or playing video games. Take breaks and stretch during sedentary activities. Enjoy a quick walk around the block if you have a few minutes of free time.

Does your lifestyle include too much sitting? Do you have tips for adding activity into your day? Let us know in the comments.