It's no secret smoking is dangerous to our health. But there's a new, just as dangerous player to our health that is the direct result of our modern lifestyles and you are likely doing it right now. That player is sitting.
Yep, sitting is now considered by many to be the 'new smoking'. Why? Because it shortens lifespans the same way that smoking does.
Inactivity contributes to more than 3 million deaths (all preventable) worldwide yearly. When it comes to non-communicable diseases, it is the fourth leading cause of death.
It kills more people than HIV and is more dangerous to our health than parachuting.
The reality is, humans are not meant to sit, at least not for long periods. According to Dr James Levine, professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic, we spend more than half our waking hours sitting down.
We sit in front of the computer at home and work, we sit in front of the TV and watch sometimes mindless entertainment for hours. And, since the advent of computerised business, more and more people are required to sit for hours on end at their jobs.
And, although proper exercise and activity can counteract some of the damage excessive sitting causes, there are not enough hours in the day to counteract the negative effects of sitting for hours at a time.
In other words, according to Katy Bowman, scientist and author of Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement, "We cannot offset 10 hours of stillness with one hour of exercise."
Gavin Bradley, director of Active Working, an international group aimed at reducing excessive sitting, explains part of the process:
"When we marathon sit, we change our body's metabolism because metabolism slows down 90 per cent after 30 minutes of sitting.
"Enzymes that move bad fat from the arteries to the muscles where it gets burned off, slows down. The muscles in the lower body are turned off. And, after two hours, good cholesterol drops 20 per cent. Just getting up for five minutes is going to get things going again. These things are so simple they're almost stupid."
Professor of health services at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health describes the process this way:
"Sitting shuts down electrical activity in the legs. It makes the body less sensitive to insulin causing calorie-burning to plummet and slows the breakdown of dangerous blood fats, lowering 'good' HDL cholesterol."
In 2010, an Australian study revealed every extra hour participants spent sitting during a seven-year span increased their risk of dying by 11 per cent. Another study conducted in the US found that average Americans could boost their life expectancy by two years by simply reducing their sitting time to three hours daily.
Ongoing studies by Australian researchers revealed that adults who spent 11-plus hours a day sitting increased their risk of dying within the next three years by 40 per cent compared with those who sat four hours or less daily (this took into account the health and exercise levels of each participant).
The truth is, human bodies are built for standing not sitting. According to leading experts, "every time we stand up, the body initiates a shift in fluids, volume and hormones and causes muscles to contract. This stimulates nearly every nerve in the body. When standing, the large muscles (especially of the legs and back) are employed and this in turn creates a positive effect on how the body stores and uses fats and sugars.
For those required to sit all day while working, there is a bit of good news. Ongoing studies at the University of Central Florida indicate its leisure-time sitting that presents the greatest health risk, not occupational sitting (if workers take breaks to move around – it seems those with sedentary jobs are more likely to exercise outside of work compared with leisure sitters).
Those who sit in front of a TV for four hours or more a day increase their risk of heart issues and death by 50 per cent over those who do it for two hours or less. A separate study revealed that replacing 30 minutes of sitting with any other type of activity will reduce mortality risk by 17 per cent.
Furthermore, leisure sitting, and TV viewing are linked with other negative behaviours such as unhealthy snacking and drinking.
Unfortunately, the effects of sitting do not stop with physical ailments but also lead to a greater risk of anxiety and depression.
It's not that hard to build more activity into the day. Walk rather than drive, do household chores vigorously, hit the gym, park further away from your destination and walk the remainder of the distance.
Enjoy a short walk during lunch break (best if you eat lunch away from your work desk) and use your phone time wisely and walk while talking, or stand to read emails and reports.
And, to really boost your health, have a workout scheduled and pencilled into your calendar and treat it as an important appointment – with yourself.
Bottom line is this: Those who stand or move around during the day enjoy a lowered risk of early death than those who sit all day.
If we value our health, our bodies require movement. Sitting steals our health while moving heals us.
• Carolyn Hansen is co-owner of Anytime Fitness.