In recent years sedentary behaviours, and sitting more specifically, have come under increasing scientific scrutiny. The research is stacking up that shows it is significantly associated with several of the major killers. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2014 found the following:

Sitting time was significantly associated with adverse levels of waist
circumference, body mass index, triglycerides, HDL-C [the good cholesterol], insulin, HOMA-IR, HOMA-% B and 2 h postload glucose [means of measuring β-cell function, insulin resistance and fasting blood-sugar levels], but not with blood pressure or glucose level. In stratified analyses, sitting time was most consistently related to cardiometabolic risk factors among low and middle
socioeconomic groups and for those who reported no weekly physical activity,but there were few differences between sex or race groups.^

This is all very bad news for sitters.

Another study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2010, found that “several factors could explain the positive association between time spent sitting and higher all-cause death rates”.^This is confirmed in the British Journal of Sports Medicine study (mentioned above), which had concluded that “self-reported sitting time was associated with adverse cardiometabolic
risk factors consistently across sex and race groups in a representative US sample, independent of other risk factors. Excessive sitting warrants a public health concern.”

In the last four decades in the US, the number of people suffering from type 2 diabetes (to which sedentariness is strongly linked) has risen from below four million to well over twenty million: that is nearly 10 percent of the population. After only a couple of hours reclining our bodies go into a sort of hibernation, which sounds fine – hibernation is pretty natural isn’t it? Perhaps if you’re a skunk or a groundhog, then yes. Hibernation is what animals do to
survive when food sources are life-threateningly scarce. Hibernating animals drastically lower their metabolism to store energy as fat.

Every two hours we spend sitting on our portable carry-cushions reduces blood flow, lowering blood sugar and increasing the risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease. The result for humans is that even when adults meet the published guidelines for daily exercise, they can still be at risk. A study published in the journal Diabetes in 2007 suggested that sitting for long periods, despite a burst of exercise, can still compromise metabolic health.^ This was echoed in a 2010 study at the University of Queensland’s School of Occupational Health^ and many others. Although we garner some of the beneficial effects of exercise, it is not sufficient to offset the damage done during long sedentary periods; this is a little bit like playing football regularly and smoking 20 cigarettes a day.

What the research seems to be saying is that we need to be active either at regular intervals or throughout our day – whether at school or at work. There is a widely held misunderstanding that sitting for too long is the same thing as not exercising; the two are quite separate things. You can exercise and still be classed as sedentary because of the sum of the hours you spend sitting. The boardroom in any company is where the money is spent. As at King Arthur’s Camelot, the big table boasts power, wealth and success – and being
invited to sit at it is like being made a knight in your company or institution. And the chairs… even though they are rarely sat on, hundreds are spent on each one. The whole set-up is a symbol of the important decisions that are made in that place and around that table. But they mean early death for those who regularly sit through these meetings. It is time we retired them before they do further damage. We certainly do not need to be working out all day;
we do not need to hold meetings in the gym or during Boxercise classes, but we do need to have meetings while on our feet, not seated. A rather pleasant additional benefit of more vertical meetings is that they become much, much shorter and more efficient.

Published with permission from Primate Change: How the world we made is remaking us


  • Vybarr Cregan-Reid is an author and academic. He is Reader in English & Environmental Humanities in the School of English at the University of Kent. His most recent book is Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human (Ebury 2016, paperback June 2017), which reviewers called ‘delightful’, ‘impassioned and energetic’, and ‘a blazing achievement’. He has written widely on the subjects of literature, health, nature and the environment for the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph, the Mail and the Washington Post and he has appeared on Radio 4 and Sky News.