Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation

I find myself, probably like many of you, spending way too much time in front of my computer.

When I do face-to-face meetings, my colleagues and I typically met around some conference table, sometimes at an airport lounge (nothing like getting the most out of a long layover), and quite often at coffee shops (hello Starbucks!). But that means that the most common denominator across all these locations wasn’t the desk, or, the keyboard, or even the coffee. The common denominator in the modern workday is our, um, tush.

As we work, we sit more than we do anything else. We’re averaging 9.3 hours a day, compared to 7.7 hours of sleeping. Sitting is so prevalent and so pervasive that we don’t even question how much we’re doing it. And, everyone else is doing it also, so it doesn’t even occur to us that it’s not okay. In that way, I’ve come to see that sitting is the smoking of our generation.

Of course, health studies conclude that people should sit less, and get up and move around. After 1 hour of sitting, the production of enzymes that burn fat declines by as much as 90%. Extended sitting slows the body’s metabolism affecting things like (good cholesterol) HDL levels in our bodies. Research shows that this lack of physical activity is directly tied to 6% of the impact for heart diseases, 7% for type 2 diabetes, and 10% for breast cancer, or color cancer. You might already know that the death rate associated with obesity in the US is now 35 million. But do you know what it is in relationship to Tobacco? Just 3.5 million. The New York Times reported on another study, published last year in the journal Circulation that looked at nearly 9,000 Australians and found that for each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11%. In that article, a doctor is quoted as saying that excessive sitting, which he defines as nine hours a day, is a lethal activity.

And so, over the last couple of years, we saw the mainstreaming of the standing desk. Which, certainly, is a step forward. But even that, while it gets you off your duff, won’t help you get real exercise.

So four years ago, I made a simple change when I switched one meeting from a coffee meeting to a walking-meeting. I liked it so much it became a regular addition to my calendar; I now average four such meetings, and 20 to 30 miles each week. Today it’s life-changing, but it happened almost by accident.

My fundamental problem with exercise has always been this: it took time away from other more “productive things.” Going to the gym to take care of me (vs. companies, colleagues, family) seemed selfish. My American-bred Puritan work ethic nearly always won out. Only when I realized I could do both at the same time, by making exercise part of the meeting, did I finally start to get more exercise. This is one of those 2-for-1 deals. I’m not sacrificing my health for work, nor work for fitness. And maybe that’s why making fitness a priority finally doesn’t feel like a conflict. It’s as easy as stepping out the door and might require as much as a change of shoes.

And, yet, it’s true that some people will turn you down. Probably 30% of the people I ask to do these kinds of meetings say that they are not fit enough to do a walking meeting. I had one person tell me afterwards that they got more active for an entire month before our meeting, so as to not embarrass themselves on their hike with me. I don’t judge the people who won’t do a hiking meeting, and in most cases will choose to do another type of meeting with them (lunch or whatever) but I am also reminded of James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis’s research from their related book, Connected. They observed that obesity spreads according to network effects; if your friend’s friend’s friend who lives a thousand miles away gains weight, you’re likely to gain weight, too. And if that extended friend also loses weight, even if you’re not in the same city, you’re likely to lose weight, too. My goal is to be someone who socializes the idea that physical activity matters, and that we each matter enough to take care of our health.

And after a few hundred of these meetings, I’ve started noticing some unanticipated side benefits. First, I can actually listen better when I am walking next to someone than when I’m across from them in some coffee shop. There’s something about being side-by-side that puts the problem or ideas before us, and us working on it together.

Second, the simple act of moving also means the mobile device mostly stays put away. Undivided attention is perhaps today’s scarcest resource, and hiking meetings allow me to invest that resource very differently.

And, finally we almost always end the hike joyful. The number one thing I’ve heard people say (especially if they’ve resisted this kind of meeting in the past) is “That was the most creative time I’ve had in a long time” And that could be because we’re outside, or a result of walking. Research certainly says that walking is good for the brain.

I’ve learned that if you want to get out of the box thinking, you need to literally get out of the box. When you step outside, you give yourself over to nature, respecting its cycles and unpredictability. It keeps me more awake to what is happening around me by experiencing the extreme heats of summer, or the frigid power of winter. It makes me present to the world around me instead of being insulated from it.

To keep this commitment — to myself and to others — I’ve marked off certain times on my calendar for these meetings. I block off two morning appointments (when I can take a shower afterwards) and two end-of-day appointments for hiking meetings. I try and schedule these slots before scheduling “regular” sitting meetings because it means I have no excuse to not move that day and it helps me be more awake during the day or less zombie-like (and still-thinking-about-my-inbox) going into the evening. On the rare days when someone bails on a hike last minute, I typically still head out for the time, and I find myself hearing even my own voice more clearly.

Nilofer Merchant is a corporate director at a NASDAQ-traded firm and a lecturer at Stanford, and formerly the founder and CEO of Rubicon. She’s the author of The New How and 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era. Follow her on Twitter @nilofer. This post was originally published on the HBR Blog Network.

16 replies »

  1. Nah, it’s the lack of exercise followed by the excessive sitting. Look, you can smoke a cigar a week, have a drink a night, followed with a CLEAN diet, and REGULAR strenuous exercise. Put that shake weight down and hit the gym.
    And still live a happy long life. It’s when people expect to be healthy when they drink mountain dew for breakfast and chipotle binge is the problem. They then find other things to blame, because it cannot obviously be such a simple solution. “I love my soda”. Nope, not sitting. It’s the lack of exercise in our every day lives. Go to the gym, go to the park, do something other reading articles like these. And get a quality cigar cutter. Check out our reviews. Later!

  2. I sit much more than I should but with the amount of word processing work I do, it’s become a necessary evil. I have recently read that short bursts of writing followed by standing up and moving around helps you become not so stationery. But I agree with Nilofer, sitting is the smoking of our generation. I do exercise regularly but I can tell that too much sitting puts a strain on my body.

  3. Smoking is the worst addiction ever as it is not safe for lung and other ailments and so it should be given away before it becomes harmful for us.

  4. Here here! Getting a short break every little while is soooo good. They’re often viewed negatively, or seen as being lazy somehow, which is too bad because they totally boost productivity.

    Now, I suppose, we can reflect on the irony that the people most often taking five minutes to stand throughout the day are the ones getting up for smoke breaks…

  5. Do people sit because they’re unfit or are they unfit because they sit? No one knows. In part this is because it’s very difficult to tease out cause and effect and also control for the fact that the way we live and work has changed so much in the last 30 years.

    However, I do believe that there are major flaws in the “sitting” is bad for you theory. I wrote about them in detail here: http://khannaonhealthblog.com/2012/12/11/i-sit-all-the-time/

    And, here is another question that proponents of this theory have never tackled: when became an industrial economy, transitioning from an agricultural one, did people die prematurely because now they sat on a tractor instead of walking behind a horse team? I think probably not (and life expectancy data support me), in large part because there were still economic and social constraints on how and what we ate and because when our ancestors (of not so long ago) were not on the tractor, they were still doing other physical things.

    The problem now is that we think fitness trivial pursuits (standing desk, treadmill desk, walking meeting [I can’t even have one these with my wife let along imagine having one with clients or business colleagues]) will solve the problem. Uh, not really. At least not if you understand two key data sets: the compression of morbidity and the (vastly under-appreciated and misunderstood) impact of cardiorespiratory fitness on longevity, not just because of its impact on conventional risk factors (i.e., cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity) but because of its impact on novel risk factors (endothelial health, blood coagulability, mental health, inflammation, as well as mitochondrial health, cellular genetics and epigenetics).

    As for devotion to exercise and work ethic, in my experience they are inextricably intertwined. One reason that I believe no one can outwork and out-think me is that I know almost no one can out-work me in the gym, on the bike, or on the running trail.

  6. That’s an interesting comparison. The idea of walking meetings reminded me of those TV office shows where they have everyone walk around to create an atmosphere of business and excitement…

  7. our lifestyle made us so constantly sitting. which is another way affect on our body and create other problems. so it is important to take a short breaks in middle of long working day to get out and to avoid any disease.

  8. Hi
    My biggest problem with sitting for long periods of time. Is I get less and less productive. I find if I work solid for an hour or so then take 5 and keep doing this I get much more done than trying to do all my work in one go. So more for less.

    Great post thanks lee

  9. Hmmm.. Sitting is the new smoking of the generation huh? I guess that’s true for me. As for my job, that requires a lot of time in front of the computer, meaning a lot of sitting that takes place like 8 hours a day five times week. More than a smoker. So if one constantly smokes they are called smoker. How bout the one who constantly sits? A sitter? Thanks for the info!

  10. I agree 100% with the evils of sitting. Like most things evil, sitting cannot be completely deleted, but it can be mitigated. One approach is to set up a standing work station. This doesn’t mean that you stand all the time, but having the option opens the door. Standing also doesn’t mean that you stand still; you shift your weight, you move left and right, and since you’re already standing, it tends to encourage local mobility, simple things, like a short step here or there. Seems small, but it adds up. Contrariwise, sitting down, you tend to stay down. That adds up also.

  11. Corporate wellness programs would do well to incorporate exercise/hiking meetings to show how seamless something like this can be. But as Nilofer mentions, folks do turn her down because they don’t feel able enough.

    Can wellness programs like this be made mandatory in the workplace? Or would we be creeping into the same controversy range as Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban or new policies adopted by some employers to refrain from hiring smokers?

  12. Nilofer’s piece on being more creative about fitting in movement is excellent. The issue of whether being sedentary or stressed is the greatest problem is not really a helpful way to think about what she just noted.

    What is relevant is that she discovered a creative and effective way to both be more active and do her job better. Most people don’t think in this way and most companies don’t teach people this way of thinking. We need more of these strategies and policies that support them to help busy people discover how to consistently move more and actually get more out of work. Bravo!

  13. While excercise is important it is STRESS that is “the smoking of our generation”

    Dr. Rick Lippin

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