Sitting all day long can shave years off your life—at least that's what we've been told.
Now, researchers from the University of Exeter and University College London are coming to sitting's defense—they say we've got it backwards. Sitting itself is not harmful, they argue in a new study. Lack of exercise is.
And yes, there's a big difference between the two.
"Our study overturns current thinking on the health risks of sitting and indicates that the problem lies in the absence of movement rather than the time spent sitting itself," said Melvyn Hillsdon, a professor of sports and health sciences at Britain's University of Exeter and co-author of the study, in a statement. "Any stationary posture where energy expenditure is low may be detrimental to health, be it sitting or standing."
For the study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, the researchers followed 5,132 participants (3,720 men and 1,412 women) for 16 years to see how sitting time affected mortality. (Yes, that's as grim as it sounds.)
Beginning in 1997, the participants were all living and working in London, and their information was gathered from a larger study known as The Whitehall II study. Participants reported the average number of hours per week they spent sitting at work—including driving or commuting—and sitting at home, which included watching TV, sewing, and so on.
The researchers also tracked the participants' sociodemographic variables such as age, gender, ethnicity, and employment, as well as health variables such as smoking, alcohol consumption, diet, body mass index, and physical functioning. Daily physical activity—from walking to gardening to sports to exercise—was measured, too.
While a total of 450 deaths occurred over the course of the study, researchers found that none of the sitting measures influenced mortality risk at all. That finding goes against the current wisdom that sitting for long periods of time is detrimental. For instance, Britain's National Health Service (NHS) advises that "remaining seated for too long is bad for your health, regardless of how much exercise you do."
The authors believe that thinking may be incorrect. “Our findings suggest that reducing sitting time might not be quite as important for mortality risk as previously publicized and that encouraging people to be more active should still be a public health priority," said Richard Pulsford from University of Exeter and lead author of the study, in a press release.
In other words, sitting itself may not be the villain—instead, not getting exercise could be.
Which makes sense. Causality is difficult to prove, and considering our sedentary lifestyles leave very little room for physical activity, it's no wonder there's a correlation between sitting and mortality risk.
"Policy makers should be cautious in recommending a reduction in the time spent sitting without also promoting increased physical activity," said Hillsdon.
So what does this mean for you? Well, if you haven't noticed, standing desks have surged in popularity recently. The White House asked for $700,000 to spend on standing desks for employees. A school in California ditched its elementary school desks for standing desks. And more and more workers across America are requesting—nay demanding—them.
But is it all worth it, since sitting may not be the problem?
“The results cast doubt on the benefits of sit-stand work stations, which employers are increasingly providing to promote healthy working environments," said Hillsdon.
With this new information, it's possible that taking a lunchtime walk or midday yoga would be better than investing in a standing desk. Until further research is conducted, a little more movement probably couldn't hurt.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.