Can spending less time sitting down add years to life?

Monty Python artwork showing a man in an armchair The analysis assumes a causal association rather than proving that there is one

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Limiting the time we spend sitting to just three hours a day could add an extra two years to our life expectancy, scientists calculate.

Similarly, if we cut daily TV viewing down to two hours we could add on 1.4 years, they say in a report for the online journal BMJ Open.

But experts say the US estimates, which are based on five separate population studies, are too unreliable to predict personal risk.

Plus the targets are unfeasible.

Prof David Spiegelhalter, an expert in risk calculations at the University of Cambridge, said: "This is a study of populations, and does not tell you personally what the effect of getting off the sofa might be.

"It seems plausible that if future generations moved around a bit more, then they might live longer on average.

"But very few of us currently spend less than three hours sitting each day, and so this seems a very optimistic target."

Sitting comfortably?

Adults are advised to do at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as cycling or fast walking every week, as well as a couple of sessions of muscle-strengthening exercises like lifting weights or digging in the garden.

But even if you do this recommended amount, you may still be sedentary - for example, if you work in an office you may spend most of your working day sitting.

Recommended amounts

  • Adults should try to be active every day
  • Activity may be spaced out over the week or done in one or two big sessions
  • This should include at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise such as cycling
  • Or 75 minutes a week of intense activity, such as running or playing tennis
  • Muscle-strengthening exercises that work all the major muscle groups should be done on two or more days a week

Source: NHS choices

A growing body of evidence suggests the more time we spend sitting, the less healthy we may be.

Several studies have linked sitting and television viewing to conditions like diabetes and heart disease as well as an increased overall risk of death.

But finding a link is not the same as proving one thing actually causes the other.

And although this latest piece of research does not claim to be proof, the researchers themselves acknowledge there are flaws that make its findings less than reliable.

The work looked at a large sample of people - almost 167,000 in total - but did not scrutinise the different lifestyles these individuals led.

It is not clear how many of these people were less healthy to begin with and who, therefore, might spend more time sitting down as a result.

And the studies relied on the participants accurately recalling and reporting how much time they spent lounging around.

Dr Peter Katzmarzyk and Prof I-Min Lee who carried out the review stress that their estimates are theoretical.

man watching TV Telly time may distract from more 'healthy' activities, researchers have suggested

But given that the adults in their research spent, on average, half of their days sitting "engaged in sedentary pursuits", the findings could provide an important public health warning.

Natasha Stewart, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: "This research only suggests a causal association between sedentary behaviour and a shorter life expectancy. It also used American data so we'd need to see more research to understand what it means for the UK population.

"However, it does highlight what we already know about sedentary behaviour being a risk factor for developing heart disease. And recent UK guidelines suggested we should all minimise the time we spend sitting down.

"We all need to be regularly active to keep our hearts healthy. So whether it's by walking to the local shop rather than driving, or playing sport rather than watching it on TV, there are lots of ways to be more active and improve your health."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Is this another piece of scientific research that comes under the BBC heading of science which is settled?

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I have been heeding all life extending advice/tips and have calculated my life expectancy to be 187 years. I'm going not sit around or watch TV now so that takes me up to 188.4 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I wonder if this research might have been more scientifically valid (difficult for it to be less so!) had it been carried out standing up rather than from bind a PC with their brain in neutral? Just a thought...

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Seriously, chill out. These people are going to give themselves a heart attack. Moving walk ways don't cause obesity, bad attitudes do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    wasted money.
    next time maybe they'll do a real clinical test.
    yes, it takes tears and you don't pop up so often on respectable (sic) scientific publications, but it has real value for the rest of us, mere mortals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Well duh! - people that have systemic health problems are likely to be less active, which is going to skew the figures massively.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    This does not do the medical profession any favours (and doesn't help scientists in general). Once again we've been treated to a study in the obvious. Even the researchers admit to gaping holes in their study! Haven't come across such drivel since the Institute of Food Research spent £200,000 in 1995 to work out why my cornflakes go soggy in the morning!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Since most of us work, and we probably work sitting down, in the week that's more than our three hours a day sitting down gone already!
    So are we to spend our entire leisure time exercising or standing up?
    What a ridiculous idea!

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Oh well, that's me doomed.
    (If none of the other things "wrong" in my body or lifestyle don't get me first.)

    The "pacing" on my current Chronic Fatigue Syndrome level means I'm only supposed to be active for five minutes in every hour.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Presumably those commenters who hate civil servants will be delighted at this, as most of us are deskbound for most of the day!

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    '' A growing body of evidence suggests the more time we spend sitting, the less healthy we may be '' .
    Question: Do these people get paid and if so can I have a job ?
    What next, after many years of studies research concludes that the more beer we drink the more likelihood of developing health problems - jeez !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I just love these "experts" . Whenever a study comes out it's almost immediately contradicted by an another "expert" How would they know how long a person would have lived if they didn't sit in an office all their working life? And, what irks me the most is that they are collecting huge salaries for nothing useful for anybody.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    How about encouraging (forcing) those who persistently rely upon benefits to participate in a national energy generation program? Giant hamster wheels connected to electricity power converters located in areas where feckless NEETS etc congregate and all could "enjoy" a daily 4 hour of stint in the wheel to help produce free(ish) electricity. The idea needs work but it has possibilities, yes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Why did I just read that story? And to top it all off I was sitting down at the time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Does this mean I can sue the company I work for because they make me sit at a desk for 6 hours a day?

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Everything is bad for your health these days...apparently. These bozos who carry out these pointless exercises are just looking for the next bit of funding they can secure to keep them in employment. These studies get more and more surreal as the more bona fide studies have already being complete. I'm typing this whilst sitting at my desk, thus adding 24 seconds to my life expectancy. Pure drivel!

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    A simple equation, move more, do more, think more, live a bit longer in a healthier state, what is to dislike. Whooops!!! Forgot about the couch potatoes out there, OK then, absent mindedly leave your TV remote upstairs, move the microwave into the garage, put a time lock on your fridge. You could always get a dog if walking without a good reason to do so doesn't appeal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    @ 3.keeleboy
    "Ground breaking research this. Who knew that leading a more active lifestyle would be a more healthy one? Thank god for boffins."

    Actually ...
    This is a disgracefully poor piece of JOURNALISM, both by the BBC, and by the BMJ Online Journal (whatever that is), in giving this utterly useless piece of drivel publicity it doesnt deserve.


  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Who pays for all this irrelevant rubbish??

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Glad to see people taking this with the proverbial (and no doubt soon to be outlawed) pinch of salt and moreover, resisting the temptation to turn it into a fat-phobic hate fest. And the fact they always focus on TV viewing reveals the classism that underpins much of the 'obesity' discourse; stereotypically middle-class pasttimes such as reading are every bit as sedentary but never mentioned.


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