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 100.

    I had understood that life expectancy among males increased dramatically over the last 100 years primarily as a result of a move from physical jobs to sedentary jobs. And hasn't it always been the case that office workers lived much longer than manual workers (on average, of course? How about asking the life insurance actuaries? I bet they know the answer! Utter nonsense and drivel as usual.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    There are no doubt people around who are very old and have spent most of their lives sitting down. I've heard of very old people who've lived on a diet of fish n chips. Theres also no evidence that salt is bad for you and in hospital the first thing they give patients ... a Saline drip! You can rely on Big-Pharma to mis-inform you & to get real cures buried in order to keep profits rolling in!

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    All of these research pieces are pointless. Unless they can say 100% chance to live 2 years longer then it means nothing. I probably have an 80% chance to live till I'm 80. But that other 20% has from now (25) until 80 to rear it's ugly head. Stop wasting money on this research and perhaps invest the money into community programs to improve communities and get people more into activities!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

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

    I have more than a sneaking suspicion that my overall risk of death is 100%!! Increasing that is going to be tricky.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Sedentary lifestyle leads to early grave

    No s*** Sherlock….

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Well I am certainly in trouble. I spend all of every day sat - in my wheelchair. :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Chris Hoy are all screwed.....they've spent most of their lives sitting down....

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    I have a stopclock next to my chair. Every time I sit down and stand up I press the timer, and should it ever reach the 3 hour mark I then get up and watch the remainder of the TV in a standing position. This should hopefully add 2 years to my life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    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

    latest piece of research does not claim to be proof, researchers acknowledge there are flaws that make findings less than reliable
    Useful then? Don't usually criticise research, but I think I'll make an exception with this one

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    What a remarkable piece of non-news!

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    An increased overall risk of death is it? And here was me thinking that death was a certainty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    This would have more to do with the fact that the people who sit around all day are less likely to exercise. It's not a fact of A (sitting) causing B (health problems) it's more to do with the link between C (lack of excercise) and A, and C and A. It's a separate factor, and to say that A causes B is just plain wrong

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Sometimes I work in nursing homes taking care of very elderly people who can't care for themselves. I seriously doubt it is worthwhile to stay on my feet all day long in order to enjoy the discomfort and indignities of one or two more years of horrible food, inactivity and total dependance on others for the simplest ADLs (activities of daily living). I think I'd rather check out a bit earlier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    yes getting up and out is a good thing, but:
    as a society there are very few non comercial things to engage in. everything in our town centres are geared towards commerce and not free lesure activeties, so we stay indoors or go shopping.
    that is a sad truth. it costs to go out.
    so our life style is governed by go out and spend.
    if you don't have money the tendency is to stay in get fat die

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    "Several studies have linked sitting and television viewing to conditions like diabetes and heart disease as well as an increased overall risk of death. "
    My overall risk of death used to be 100% - I do not believe that it will increase or decrease whatever I do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    So a manual labourer is likely to live longer than a GP? Where does this drivel come from? I can believe that someone who is physically inactive will have more health problems - after all we didn't evolve with chairs on our bottoms and books in our hands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Why is there this obsession with living longer

    In a world that is going to pot, where injustice is rife, where predatory politicians prey upon the weak and vulnerable, where millions of people are starving whilst a few gather in groups drinking glasses of bolly
    sometimes I think knocking a few years off my life would be a godsend.

    It's not reaching the end that is important Its how we get there

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    I object to my picture being used in this article. And how was it obtained? I need to know! Can't remember why, though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Why not look at the practical solutions rather than be defeatist? (No wonder we are said to be the most obese country in Europe.) Many people now use stand-up desks or treadmill desks (you can walk, rather than run), and not only are they fitter but they feel more energised as a result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    In next week's news: Can spending less time standing add years to life?


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