Can sitting too much kill you?

This article in Scientific American titled "Can sitting too much kill you?" is the boost I need to get off my butt and make a treadmill desk.
[E]ven if you are meeting current physical activity guidelines by exercising for one hour per day (something few Americans manage on a consistent basis), that leaves 15 to 16 hours per day when you are not being active. Does it matter how you spend those hours, which account for more than 90% of your day? For example, does it matter whether you spend those 16 hours sitting on your butt, versus standing or walking at a leisurely pace? Fortunately or unfortunately, new evidence suggests that it does matter, and in a big way. quote researcher Marc Hamilton, sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little. (if you take only one thing from this post, let it be that quote from Dr Hamilton).


  1. Crap. I’m a marathoner, so I thought I was covered. Now I’m going to have to stand up while I write all day? Goddammit! I give up.

    Please, someone invent a gel solution that will cocoon us in blissful, upright silence in our glass pods, gently stimulating our muscles while softly flickering screens pour information into our frontal cortex.

  2. I hope to one day do something famous enough that some reporter will write a story about me beginning with ‘we caught up with X where he’s been sitting motionless in front of a computer for several years now’

  3. I spend a lot of time bent forward at the waist, even when I’m not sitting. cycling, rowing, sleeping in the fetal position. Because it’s rarely asked to be long, all the tissue in the front of my pelvis and legs (Psoasz, hip flexors, quads, transverse abs) has naturally shortened.
    I spent last summer at a desk 12 hours a day studying, and my body decided it had had enough.

    An excellent massage therapist got me out of the worst of the pain and structural imbalance, but he said I should stop sitting whenever possible.
    so I stand at work now.

    I can confirm that my body is working a lot harder than when it was sitting.

    The key is a tall-enough desk to avoid neck cricks.

  4. I find this study infuriating.

    Athletes in training have a maxim… don’t stand when you can sit, don’t sit when you can lie down.

    The difference here is that athletes are generally in a constant state of recovery after training, and that training is specific and goal oriented… unlike “an hour of activity a day”.

    Recovery from a strength training workout can use up to 1000 calories a day… all the anabolic activity in the body would certainly put drains on glycogen stores, and fat stores would be used to supply the excess energy required between meals, to make up that deficit.

    Correlation doesn’t equal causation, and though this is certainly an interesting study, it on its own isn’t sufficient to make ANY changes to lifestyle, because there are simply too many variables not accounted for here. I do look forward to seeing more research in this area.

    Another important fact… constant activity without breaks leads to injury as the body cant adapt and rebuild. Too much exercise (running daily) shows no benefits and leads to greater rates of injury… which leads to sitting.

    1. Excellent points, but as a climber I’m reminded here of the dangers of hang time in a harness. Blood pooling in the legs can cause toxic shock and even death. I’m thinking that cutting the blood supply to the lower half of your body on a consistent basis is probably not a good thing for your general health. We were built to wander forests and plains all day, not sit at desks.

      1. We were built to wander forests and plains all day, not sit at desks.

        Speak for yourself. I was not built. I built myself, actually. And the plans I used were encoded in my DNA, said DNA having *evolved* over a very long period, a portion of which my ancestors may have spent time each day wandering forests and plains. But probably not all day as you say. Most apes are most active in the morning and evening.

  5. Travis Saunders is a Certified Exercise Physiologist. looks to me like somebody is looking for an excuse to validate their profession.

  6. “The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.”

    I should certainly hope so! What was it I saw in that article about science by press conference may just as well as apply here. Where was the peer review for this?

  7. It it me or his maths are a little bit off:
    “one hour per day […], that leaves 15 to 16 hours per day when you are not being active.”

    24 – 1 = 15.5±0.5

    “Does it matter how you spend those hours, which account for more than 90% of your day?”

    16/24 > 0.9

  8. I used to have a standing desk and a tall drafting chair so I could use it either way. A few things lately have made me think I had the right idea back then…

    Perhaps BoingBoing could/should do a roundup of cheap and decent ways to make that happen.

  9. A couple of things to think about… the study done in rats was done for 6 hours of a rat hung by their tails, and the changes were isolated to only the muscles of the back legs. This study doesn’t point to sedentary activity causing harmful changes. Rat metabolism is much higher than human metabolism… I couldn’t google enough on rat muscle metabolism to determine how much faster within my attention span… but 4x is a safe assumption… I’m sure after not moving a limb for 24 hrs… muscle changes in humans would be expected. In that muscle.

    Secondly, the idiot researcher says that watching TV an hour a day increases the likelyhood of death from all causes by 11%. The study says 1.1%…. off by an order of magnitude.

    Finally, 5 days of bedrest is NOT the same as sitting at work, at all.

    This dudes paper is ridiculous.

    1. Kleiber’s Law (Wikipedia)

      I always found this stuff fascinating as hell. You can calculate metabolic rates by mass, figure out median lifespans, lifetime heartbeats, and so on.

      The metabolic rate version resolves correctly down to the level of the individual bacterium or organelle!

    2. Rob, I think you misread the study on TV. It is a 11% difference. The 1.11 is their hazard ratio from the control. So the control has a risk ratio of 1.0, and watching tv for an hour a day increased mortality 11% making the risk ratio 1.11. Though you have a point regarding elite athletes, that’s a very very small percentage of people.

      Travtastic, it says they controlled for age, smoking, and physical activity levels.

      Not sure why people are being so harsh on this study. It seems like an interesting one.

      1. Probably because I had to control for more variables in high school science experiments. This may not be full-on junk science, but it’s also molded to be a headline grabber. People surprisingly don’t like that.

  10. Not everyone sits at work. I work 10 hour shifts as a cook. I used to work 10-12 hour shifts as a retail manager, on my feet most of that time. My ex-husband, who works as a computer programmer, used to accuse me of being lazy because I’d come home and sit at my computer or play a video game for a half hour after work. Heaven forbid that I watch a DVD on my day off, often just one day a week, because that proved my uncontrollable lethargy. Some of us enjoy desks with chairs, and sofas.

    That said, if I am forced to attend a conference or class where I am expected to sit for more than a few hours, I can’t stand it and wind up going to the back of the room to stand during the presentation. I can barely tolerate going out to a movie because I can’t walk around like I can at home while watching a DVD.

  11. I find that I naturally interrupt my sitting sessions while conceptually designing something at the computer, because I feel the urge to get up and pace up and down the hall to figure out a particular something. Doing CAD work keeps me glued in my seat, staring at the monitor for hours on end.

    Reading online stuff is bad since I can’t pace while reading it. Maybe that’s why the iPad was invented.

    Go outside? What’s that?

  12. What I wonder is this? Could it be that unhealthy people, e.g., people who are obese, spend more time sitting because of their condition. That could be another reason for this result. Forgive me if I misread, but it doesn’t appear that the study controlled for that.

    1. Actually, I thought he said it did control for different weight, sex, age, activity level (e.g. two people w/equal weight, etc.; one sits more and that one’s less healthy).

      I dunno if further research’ll bear all this out or not, but it’s interesting to look at sitting itself.

  13. Like Assange’s upcoming autobiography, this study will be “one of the unifying documents of our generation”.

  14. What a silly study. Not a word about sitting and eating chocolates, or sitting and laughing at stand-up comedians, or sitting while viewing pron.

    Fairly inconclusive I gotta say.

  15. Haha, Yay, the treadmill desk returns! @mark: many years ago for a joke I made a treadmill that went somewhere, as you walked on it the tread and was connected to drive wheels.
    Though It was not steerable, as a proof of concept, it was a hoot!
    Maybe your idea for a human powered generator to power your house could be scaled down to powering your desk?

  16. “Can sitting too much kill you?”

    As an over-the-road trucker, all I can say is, god, I hope not.

    1. Reporters often misquote or distort research to grab headlines. The scientist may try to ‘review and confirm’ the copy before it goes to the public, but ultimately they don’t have much control… maybe a disclaimer in the next issue. Some of you might want to look at the exercise physiology studies for the man-in-space programs.

  17. I’ve been using a treadmill desk every day at work for over a year now, and I wouldn’t want to go back.

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