The implication that sitting is just as harmful as smoking not only spreads misinformation, but it also hampers inclusivity in language.

By Megan Falk
April 07, 2021
Credit: Getty Images

Simplified, witty catchphrases have long been used to encourage people to adopt healthy habits. Your parents may have told you that "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" to encourage you to eat more fruit, for example. In the 2010s, "sitting is the new smoking" was a go-to metaphor for academic researchers and in media headlines. Coined by James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., former director of the Mayo Clinic Obesity Solutions Institute and inventor of the treadmill desk, the snarky axiom has been frequently repeated over the years to motivate (or TBH, scare) people into getting off their tushes.

The reason: Research shows excessive sitting time almost doubles the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and sedentary behavior (think: watching TV, using a computer, sitting at school, work, or on your commute) has been linked with an increased risk of death, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and hypertension.

Though this phrase may have been created with good intentions, it's not 100 percent accurate, nor does it address the unique needs and abilities of each person — something that was recently made clear by fitness influencer Monica Blanco, aka @asapmonny. In an Instagram Reel, Blanco notes that the language used in the phrase "sitting is the new smoking" isn't particularly inclusive, as some people may have disabilities, use wheelchairs, or otherwise might not be able to simply "get up!" as the phrase implies. "This is my official public service announcement," Blanco says in the video. "Let's stop using 'sitting is the new smoking.'" (Related: How to Create an Inclusive Environment In the Wellness Space)

Not only is the phrase not inclusive, but research also shows that the health effects of sitting and smoking don't even compare. In a 2018 review published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that while excessive sitting (think: more than eight hours a day) does increase the risk of premature death by 25 percent, smoking ups the risk by a whopping 180 percent. What's more, keeping your booty firmly planted in a chair all day doesn't pose a health risk to others, while secondhand smoke exposure is linked with a disproportionately high risk of stroke and has been linked with 2.5 million deaths in the U.S. over a 50-year period, according to the review. Simply put, "equating the risk of sitting with smoking is clearly unwarranted and misleading, and only serves to trivialize the risks associated with smoking," Terry Boyle, Ph.D., an epidemiologist who was involved in the research, said in a press release. (Related: Why Are More Young People Having Strokes?)

So what's the fix? "Let's just say, 'move more in ways that you can,'" Blanco suggests in her video.

In other words, regardless of your reasoning for staying active, you don't have to go for a three-mile run during your lunch break, attend a weekend HIIT class, or even walk around the neighborhood. A few laps in the pool, a tennis match with your roommates, a strength training session, a morning spent gardening, a dance class, or a resistance band workout can all get your heart rate up and body moving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Research published in The Lancet shows you'll need to tackle at least an hour of physical activity (such as brisk walking or cycling) daily in order to counteract the increased risk of death associated with sitting eight hours a day. But, of course, setting aside that much time might be tough to accomplish. So if you can't squeeze in a sweat sesh between your day job, side hustle, commute, meal-prepping, and child care duties, know that even a little bit of exercise can help reduce the risks associated with prolonged sitting, Ulf Ekelund, a professor at the Norweigan School of Sport Sciences and the lead author of the study, said in a press release. (Related: Here's What a Perfectly Balanced Weekly Workout Schedule Looks Like)

While it may seem trivial to retire a phrase meant to encourage health-promoting physical activity, the comparisons it draws minimize the legit risks of smoking. And as Blanco points out, ditching "sitting is the new smoking" for a different saying would be an important win for inclusivity. "The more inclusive and universally accessible our suggested activities and language are, the closer we are to truly integrating ALL HUMANS to work and live TOGETHER," Monica wrote in the post's caption. "This is an ongoing challenge and practice that I continue to learn everyday. When we are inclusive of different backgrounds, we can ALL can develop positive perceptions, break down barriers, and banish stereotypes."


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