‘Sitting down as unhealthy as smoking’ say researchers

Cigarette packets come with a health warning – and perhaps chairs should carry the same warnings too, if the latest claims by experts at Queen’s University Belfast are to be believed.

Dr Mark Tully on his treadmill desk at work in Belfasts Queen's University.
Dr Mark Tully on his treadmill desk at work in Belfasts Queen's University.

According to the researchers, prolonged sitting is just as dangerous to your health as smoking.

It is now believed that sitting for long periods of time is linked to increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and even early death.

In fact prolonged sitting could be just as big a threat to public health, if not more so, than smoking.

The Queen’s researchers are part of a European consortium which has received a £3 million European Commission grant to help develop innovative ways to tackle sedentary behaviour and increase physical activity in older people.

Working with researchers in Spain, Denmark, Germany, France and Scotland, the four-year study will see the Queen’s team develop new ways of helping adults over 65 years of age to sit less and become more active.

Eventually the theories will be put into practice with tests on 1,300 people in four European countries.

Dr Mark Tully, from the UKCRC Centre of Excellence for Public Health at Queen’s University, said: “Levels of sedentary behaviour increase as we age, which poses a significant threat to the health of our population.”

Dr Tully, the head of the project, said people typically spend a large proportion of their day sitting.

“One of the biggest threats to health is the amount of time spent sitting. On average people spend over nine hours, or up to 80 per cent of their waking day, sitting down.

“Public health scientists have recognised the need to develop effective interventions to address the high levels of inactivity across ages, with sitting regarded as ‘the new smoking’,” he said.

One Canadian study has revealed that adults who spent most of their time sitting were 50 per cent more likely to die during the follow-up than those that sit the least.

Queen’s researchers have previously shown that mothers who sit more during pregnancy are likely to have heavier babies, while men who spend more time sitting at work have poorer kidney function.

Dr Tully added: “During this study we hope to be able to identify effective methods to help our ageing society make positive lifestyle changes in order to improve their health and wellbeing.

“This programme will then be available for delivery through the health system in each of the member countries.”

There are a number of options available to help people be more active at work, including height adjustable desks, which allow users to alternate between standing and sitting, and treadmills.

Not one to ignore his own advice, Dr Tully himself regularly uses a treadmill desk during his working day.