Do you want the short answer or the long answer?
Short answer: Sitting is not the new smoking.
“Sitting is the new smoking” is an attention-getting statement! On the plus side, it’s made people truly consider the deleterious effects of a sedentary lifestyle. However, the most current evidence shows that it’s simply untrue. Public health professionals worry that spreading hyperbolic (i.e., exaggerated) statements such as this prevents individuals from making educated behavioral choices and can lead to mistrust in public health professionals (Vallence et al., 2018).
In 2018, researchers from Australia took a deep dive into the science behind the statement “sitting is the new smoking.” They found that the risk of death among smokers is 2.8 times that of non-smokers (Vallence et al., 2018). This risk is even higher among heavy smokers (i.e., 40+ cigarettes per day); the risk of death among heavy smokers is over 4 times the risk of death among non-smokers (Vallence et al., 2018). While the risk of death among those who sit more than 8 hours a day is only 1.22 times that of people who sit less than 4 hours a day (Vallence et al., 2018). Furthermore, smokers have greater than 1,000% higher risk of developing lung cancer. There is no similar statistic for sitting.
Worldwide, smoking is responsible for nearly 7 million deaths each year (CDC, 2020). While “physical inactivity,” in general, causes less than half of that – around 3.2 million deaths each year (WHO, 2014). It’s also worth noting that physical inactivity is a broad term, and sitting is only one specific behavior under that umbrella. Smoking itself is responsible for all 7 million deaths each year. It is crucial not to minimize the risks of smoking with the eye-catching statement, “Sitting is the new smoking.”
Now that we’ve established that the risks of smoking far outweigh the risks of sitting, let us be clear – sedentary lifestyles are not ideal. The aforementioned study also showed those who sit more than 8 hours a day have 10-20% higher risk of developing chronic diseases than those who sit less than 4 hours per day (Vallence et al., 2018). Moreover, the fact that physical inactivity kills over 3.2 million people each year and is associated with 22% higher risk of death is nothing to scoff at.
So, to make a long answer short – Sitting is the new smoking? False. But both contribute, in varying amounts, to premature death and chronic disease.
CDC. (2020, May 21). Fast Facts. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fast_facts/index.htm
Vallance, J. K., Gardiner, P. A., Lynch, B. M., D’Silva, A., Boyle, T., Taylor, L. M., . . . Owen, N. (2018). Evaluating the Evidence on Sitting, Smoking, and Health: Is Sitting Really the New Smoking? American Journal of Public Health,108(11), 1478-1482. doi:10.2105/ajph.2018.304649
WHO. (2014, October 06). Physical Inactivity: A Global Public Health Problem. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_inactivity/en/