Sitting is the ‘new smoking’, and we’re paying the price

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Even with regular exercise as part of a healthy regimen, Toronto researchers found that prolonged sitting is linked to increased risk of negative health outcomes, including heart disease, diabetes, and premature death. According to an analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, sitting for long periods during daytime hours, regardless of exercise, is associated with a 15-20 percent higher risk of premature death from any cause, a 15-20 percent higher risk of heart disease, and as much as a 90 percent higher risk of developing diabetes (Biswas et al., 2015).

Of course, negative health effects are more pronounced among those who do little exercise and sit for longer periods throughout the day. Individuals who stand or walk frequently have a 30 percent lower risk of premature death (Biswas et al., 2015). Unfortunately, only about 15 percent of Canadian adults get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week to maintain a healthy lifestyle (Bounajm, Dinh, & Thériault, 2014). A reason for this may be because Canadian work environments in more recent years are designed to have workers sit for hours with little to no physical activity during the workday. On average, the general population in Canada spends an estimated 10 unbroken hours of the day being sedentary (Bounajm, Dinh, & Thériault, 2014), and unfortunately a 30-minute jog each day is not enough to offset the impact of prolonged sitting.

Reducing the amount of time in a sedentary state and having modest levels of physical movement throughout the day are both important for preventing deleterious health risks. While researchers have not yet identified how much time constitutes a healthy balance between sitting and physical activity, it is the total spectrum of movement within the 24-hour day that is critical.

Dr. David Alter, a cardiologist and senior scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, encourages his patients to decrease the amount of time spent in a sedentary state by a target of two to three hours in a 12-hour day. Getting up to walk around for a few minutes every half-hour during the day or efforts to stand during TV commercials can go a long way.

Impact of PA

Sources: Conference Board of Canada


If Canadians made an effort to reduce physical inactivity, chronic conditions would decline by 2.4 percent by 2020 alone and our health system would experience:

  • 222,000 fewer hypertension cases
  • 120,000 fewer diabetes cases
  • 170,000 fewer heart disease cases
  • 31,000 fewer cancer cases

(Bounajm, Dinh & Thériault, 2014)

Setting achievable goals and monitoring sitting time encourages people to find opportunities to incorporate physical activity into daily life. Even a small increase in Canadians’ physical activity would substantially reduce premature deaths, prevalence of chronic diseases, and contribute to economic growth.

In a report produced by the Conference Board of Canada: “Moving Ahead: Healthy Active Living in Canada,” having only 10 percent of Canadians reduce physical inactivity could save $2.6 billion on medical costs for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, which could boost the economy by an estimated total of $7.5 billion by 2040 (Bounajm, Dinh & Thériault, 2014). The reduction in sedentary behaviours and premature mortality would additionally reduce short-term disability costs, absenteeism rates, and employers would benefit from reduced staff turnover (Bounajm, Dinh & Thériault, 2014).

Sedentary living is the “new smoking” in Canada and we need a strategy to address the associated negative health effects and economic impacts. Like smoking, sedentary habits are complicated to break, thus we need to develop tools and policies similar to the anti-tobacco control movement that offers behavioural and lifestyle interventions. For instance, enforcing small changes within the workplace in a way that encourages workers to move more and sit less, like having daily lunchtime group walks or a workplace stationary bike, can lead to estimated gains in productivity that would be a significant benefit to the entire country. Health campaigns have long focused on promoting daily physical exercise for good health, but it is time to shift public health conversations to focus on sedentary living, and not just exercise, to promote increased physical movement that will contribute to longer, healthier lives.



Biswas, A., Oh, P.I., Faulkner, G.E., Bajaj, R.R., Silver, M.A., Mitchell, M.S., & Alter, D.A. (2015). Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med, 162(2):123-132. Retrieved from:

Bounajm, F., Dinh, T., & Thériault, L. Moving Ahead: The Economic Impact of Reducing Physical Inactivity and Sedentary Behaviour. Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2014.



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