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New study finds lack of physical activity to be as deadly as smoking. But is it that simple?

Photo: IntelFreePress via Flickr

A typical day for many people includes driving or riding public transportation to work, sitting at a desk and taking the same form of transportation home.  Some might even add a few more hours of TV for good measure.

We know squeezing in a jog or 30 minutes at the gym a day is encouraged, but is that enough physical activity to offset all our time sitting?

This week, The Lancet published a study estimating as many as 5.3 million deaths around the world were caused by physical inactivity in 2008. By comparison, the study’s researchers estimate five million people worldwide die as result of smoking each year.

But can the two factors really be compared?

According to Mark A. Pereira, Ph.D. a University of Minnesota School of Public Health epidemiologist, there’s probably more to the story.

“Pointing to one culprit and comparing it to another is like apples to oranges,” said Pereira. “Often with a sedentary lifestyle we see other unhealthy activities coupled with inactivity.  Those with sedentary lifestyles are more likely to already have a diagnosed or undiagnosed illness, which raises the ‘chicken or egg’ issue, and they are more likely to smoke cigarettes and eat unhealthy foods.”

According to Pereira, the definition of inactivity itself is actually confusing. The study in question refers to inactivity as a person not getting the recommended 150 minutes of purposeful activity daily, yet Pereira’s graduate student, Nirjhar Dutta, points out than inactivity is often looked at as the average 8-12 hours that American’s sit every day.

“Getting enough exercise is very important, but so is getting up and moving throughout the day,” Dutta explained. “Human bodies were not built to sit for most of the day and we’re seeing the effect in what we call the ‘sitting disease,’ where too much sitting in the day can lead to other health problems.”

While you’re sitting reading this, you may be thinking, “What can I do right now to avoid so much sitting in my own life?”

Pereira offers these tips:

  • Schedule walking meetings
  • Set calendar reminders to walk
  • Park farther from the entrance
  • Try a sit-stand desk in your office
  • Take the stairs when possible
  • Go to a coworker’s desk instead of calling
  • Stand and stretch every hour

“Traditionally the formula for a healthy lifestyle has been, eat well and get enough exercise. Now it’s more of a three pronged solution, eat well plus get enough exercise plus minimize sitting,” said Pereira.


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