Is Sitting Worse than Eating Donuts?

The dangers of sitting and what to do about it

If you knew how much I dislike donuts you’d understand how strong of a statement that is for me. Donuts are a mixture of three of the worst non-foods available: processed grains, hydrogenated vegetables oils and sugar. They have no nutritional value and are can harm your health in a variety of ways. And sitting too much can be worse.

The Problem With Sitting

Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death. – Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic

Dr. Levine further explains that sitting not only increases the risk obesity, but also the risk of cancers (like lung, endometrial, breast and prostate), heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and more.

His research and an analysis of many recent studies show that each hour we spend sitting takes about 21 minutes off of our lives (smoking only shaves 11 minutes off of your life. The jury is still out on how many minutes each donut takes away).

Here are some of the reasons why:

  • We burn 50 less calories per hour when sitting (compared to standing)
  • Sitting can cause the muscles to atrophy or tighten in certain places and lead to things like back pain
  • Research is also showing that sitting for long periods causes the muscles to release less of the enzyme Lipase which controls proper breakdown of fats
  • Sitting for long periods can reduce insulin sensitivity and increase risk of insulin resistance
  • Sitting too much for an extended time can reduce bone density

Chris Kresser sums it up:

Even worse, too much sitting could shorten your life. Studies in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Asia have all found an association between increased sedentary time and the risk of early death. (6789) These associations were independent of traditional risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, waist circumference and diet.

Does Exercise Help?

What I found most interesting about the research on sitting is that the statistics remained true even if the person being studied exercised for the recommended amount each day. In other words- exercise doesn’t mitigate the harmful effects of sitting.

Even marathon runners and elite athletes who trained for hours a day but sat for the rest of their day were at risk because it was the act of sitting that caused the problem, not the lack of exercise.

Is Standing Better?

One solution often offered to help avoid the harmful effects of sitting is to use a standing desk instead. I personally do this and notice that I am much more productive since making the switch.

Switching to standing for even just part of your day (3-4 hours) burns an extra 1000+ calories a week, which works out to the calories burned from running over 15 marathons when done for a year.

Reducing the amount of time spent sitting for even a few hours a day also drastically lowers the risk of the diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it is a step in the right direction.

I personally have this standing desk which I found for under $200 and it has lasted me several years and is still in great shape. I keep it in the corner of a room and it actually takes up less space than a conventional desk. Another unexpected benefit: my little kids can’t reach the top of my standing desk, so it is one of the few safe places in the house I can keep my camera or other delicate equipment.

While standing is a better solution, it has some downsides as well, including a higher risk of back strain and varicose veins.

A Step Up from Standing

Switching to a treadmill desk is another solution that offers even better benefits than just standing. It is cost and space prohibitive for many people, but it seems to be the best desk-optional available.

I don’t have one yet, (trying to convenience we CAN fit one in our house!) but will definitely share my experience if/when I do. Typically a person walks very slowly on a treadmill desk (less than 2 mph) which is enough to get blood flowing without making it difficult or distracting to work.

I am planning to get a basic treadmill like this one to add to my standing desk. Another great option would be to find a used treadmill on Craigslist or a similar site (I’ve seen them for under $200 often) and build a simple desk to go around it.

The Best Solution

In a perfect world, the best solution would be to use a treadmill desk that encourages slow movement and also to take breaks at various intervals for some more specific movements.

A treadmill desk isn’t an option for many of us, so another great solution is to do some very specific short exercises for 2-5 minutes after every hour or so of sitting. I recently interviewed two physical therapists who specialize in exercises to counteract the negative effects of sitting, and they explain this in detail in this podcast episode.

Their program focuses on short, intense exercises that can be done in a short amount of time, and special stretches that help balance the muscles after long periods of sitting. You can find out more about the specific exercises here.

Long story short, sitting kills and over the long term it can be worse for your health than smoking or eating donuts.

The Dangers of Sitting

Sources:
Image: MedicalBillingandCoding.org
Too Much Sitting: The Population-Health Science of Sedentary Behavior
Sedentary behaviors increase risk of cardiovascular disease mortality in men.
Television viewing time and reduced life expectancy: a life table analysis
Suppression of skeletal muscle lipoprotein lipase activity during physical inactivity: a molecular reason to maintain daily low-intensity activity
How many steps/day are enough? Preliminary pedometer indices for public health.

How much do you sit per day? Think about all the time you spend driving, working at a desk, watching TV, etc. It’s probably more than you think (it was for me!). Share below!

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Reader Comments

  1. We are on vacation and I just asked my husband how did donuts ever become a breakfast food?!! We were visiting his grandparents and she kept giving us powdered donuts to take back to the hotel and eat for breakfast. We didn’t eat them…. It drives me nuts!!!! Loving your site! Just finished watching you video on the Wellness Family Summit, I appreciate your research it has helped make our transition with 5 children easier!

  2. I love donuts.

  3. I call BS on this. If sitting is so bad, then why is meditation so beneficial, you cannot meditate without sitting. You have to sit to defecate. The feet are not designed to handle the whole weight of a person continuously.
    You are taking it too far, and you risk oestricizing yourself from the entire health movement and end up disinfranchizing others from following this path. After a hard day of work, I ENTITLE myself to a good relaxing sit.

    • I kind of agree with rose here. Also, if I stood all day my feet(which are already so problematic) would surely give out on me. They ache from the time I get up in the morning till I lay down at night, and I’m a very active 25 year old person who exercises regularly.

      • Just so that we are clear, I am not advocating for never sitting… just for sitting less, especially when not necessary 😉

      • Have you ever tried wearing Dansko brand shoes. The style that allows heel movement? They totally solved my ankle pain. Worth the money and they never wear out!

    • Before the advent of the outhouse people squatted to do their business as many still do in third world countries. And they also squatted instead of sitting to relax. As far as meditation, anyone who practices knows that the human body is not designed to sit for long periods which is why it can be difficult (especially when beginning) to stay still. Meditation’s benefits lie in slowing down and being present, not in sitting. And there are many other forms of meditation that do not involve sitting by the way. So I BS your BS Rose! Not to say I don’t ever enjoy sitting but it is not necessary for life when one has functional legs and feet.

      • P.S. sitting fore situation is definitely nothing like sitting on the couch or at a desk.

        • Oops couldn’t see the comment box when I was writing that last one because I’m on my phone. Should’ve been “sitting for meditation.”

  4. Hello Katie,
    I have a question, is there a specific ratio between height and position of the monitor of the computer/laptop when it comes to standing desk? I have a breakfast bar in the kitchen that I could use as a desk.

    Thank you for a great post! I truly enjoy your website, it’s so helpful and informative. You are one inspiring lady!

    Best,
    Viktoria

    • OOooo interesting question! I just went with what was comfortable for me with my desk.

    • Yes keep your monitor little below your eye level and and at least one arm distance away from you

  5. I would say that playing computer games for hours is a much more enjoyable experience since I built a standing workstation for the family.There is even a stationary bike in the living room and everybody takes turn when we are watching TV.It just comes naturally, the body and the mind do let us know what is good for them.We only have to listen.

  6. I have issues with standing for longer periods of time with my multiple spine issues making things dificult. Then you add on top of i am almost 6 months pregnant doesnt help lol. I do get up and move around probably more than i realize helping my 21 month old daughter get something. Wellness Mama I am wondering would sitting on an excercise ball like the one i’ll be using as a birthing ball be better at times to use? Those are hard to use while breast feeding but she isnt eating all the time lol. Thank you for all that you do dear ^^

    • I haven’t researched it thoroughly so it’s hard to comment, but on face value, it’s far more active to be on a ball that forces you to engage your core to balance than to be full supported by a chair. At the very least it will burn a few more calories.

  7. I’ve always, ALWAYS thought that sitting at a desk while working was unnatural. As soon as I graduated from college and got a “real” job, I found myself bothered (and feeling really unhealthy) because I was forced to be sitting for most of the day. I switched to a standing desk after that, and I cannot tell you the difference it has made. Or, if I had to sit, I sat on an exercise ball. But I don’t think I’ll ever take a job that requires 8 hours of office sitting again… it just wasn’t for me. Glad that I was thinking in the right direction!

    <3 dani

  8. YES! I’ve always believed this and I can feel it in myself, as well. Thank you so much for posting!!!

  9. I will eat my doughnuts standing up from now on then. 😉

  10. I must retract my earlier, heated statement.
    If I may, I would like to bring up an anecdote. After work, I catch the bus, then I sit, and fall asleep. However, if I miss it on the way there, stand for a while, then catch it on the way back, I stay awake/alert. A good walk home prevents me from the usual afterwork power nap.

    As I write this, I happen to be standing at my computer. Yes, the feet are somewhat sore, but they get better, and the posture improves.

    I must appologize and thank you with this courageous information. Apparently, Donald Rumsfeld, Winston Churchill, and Earnest Hemmingway among others practiced standing at their work.

  11. Hey there! I am a high school student, so I don’t have many options as far as avoiding sitting. I can’t exactly just stand in the back of the classroom, and exercises every hour also would not do. What do you suggest?

    • Like people trapped in an office, you want to take absolutely as much advantage as possible of times when you are not required to sit. So this means that if you can stand or move in school, do so (think maybe in gym class or during breaks between classes). Maybe look into getting a standing desk to work from at home and try to move as much as you can when not in school.

  12. I can’t recommend Katy Bowman’s new book Move Your DNA (and everything else she has written). She is a super genius biomechanist. It isn’t sitting, or standing that is the problem — it is being stationary for extended periods of time (but treadmills aren’t necessarily a good option either, for other biomechanical reasons). She is also coming out with a new book on dynamic workstations soon. Don’t be afraid to sit, just do it as much as possible on the floor instead of in a chair. Change positions frequently and take walking breaks.

  13. Does sitting while shaking my legs up and down like a nervous maniac really count as sitting?

  14. I work from home, sit a lot. But I like my desk not sure if I want to buy a new one. What about sitting on an exercise ball, good compromise?

  15. I do everything from my bed. Laying down. I talk on the phone,snack,watch tv and do leg lifts ect ect. So im rarely sitting. Is that bad too?

  16. Three years ago I took my first office job where I had to sit at a desk all day. After 20 years as a nurse where I was active throughout my day, sitting all day was physically uncomfortable. I fortunately was able to transition to a remote position so now I work from home. I created a standing desk from an Ikea desk by lengthening the legs by putting PVC pipe “sleeves” over the original legs. I painted the PVC with a metallic paint and it looks great. I also have a chair so I continually change positions from standing to sitting. I have my exercise ball under the desk to put my feet up on when I am sitting so I don’t have pressure behind my knees. I feel so much better than when I had to sit all day long. I do think the key is to “interrupt sitting whenever you can”- as the information above states.

  17. I use an exercise ball as a chair at work and it feels great! They’re very inexpensive and I feel so much better than just sitting in a chair, plus I think it’s a little easier to maintain than standing all day.

  18. Never heard of this before. What about kneeling at my desk which I am doing as I write this? I like the idea of standing more. Sometimes I eat standing! I will build a standing desk also.
    I am going to create my own health website, mind if I send readers to yours?
    I am a “health nut” and have been for 65 years. Thanks for your insights.

  19. As someone who loves donuts, sits 10 (!!) hours a day at work (4 days a week), and is an avid tv watcher, this article was more than a little scary! But I really like the suggestions as to how to incorporate more activity, especially the ideas of an exercise ball and stationary bike in front of the tv. If I biked while I watched, I would be way more active than I am now! Thanks again for all the information and great ideas

  20. I have read probably 70% of your posts and trust your advice because you not only support a healthy lifestyle but you live it and do research to back your claims up which is extremely helpful to prove things to family. Go you! Since reading your post, I have decided to stand while doing my school work. My family, like yours, home schools and so standing is a simple switch for me. Right now it’s stools on the kitchen table but hey, anything to save money! 😀 After reading this article, I was at first sad that I cannot sit for long amounts of time and tell myself I’ll be fine but then I realized that on average I sit for about six hours a day!!!! Six hours of my body burning like no calories and causing me shoulder and lower back pain. Now that I have stood for those six hours for two days, I feel great! Yes I have a bit of aches because my posture is straightening out, but otherwise I feel so good and no more back pain! I was not willing to accept back pain as a teenager. Uh uh no way. You have also inspired me to teach others about nutrition. So thank you Katy!

  21. I would just like to say that although (too much) sitting may be coming up as not very good for us,(too much) standing is not that great either! It is well known that people who stand for long periods of time, especially due to jobs like cooking (as chefs, etc), are significantly more prone to suffering poor leg circulation, with spider veins and varicose veins emerging as all too frequent unfortunate symptoms, let alone more easily tired legs. I know this from personal experience – not only because as an artist and a chef I ignorantly spent excessive amounts of time standing (when I should have taken more care to rest my legs more) and I thus encountered these symptoms to some degree – though I witnessed more extreme even alarming cases in a number of people around me.
    So ultimately, as with everything, it has got to be all about maintaining a Balance, eh? Don’t sit for too long and don’t stand for too long! Listen to your body’s needs and take care not to let the mind ignore it with its own ‘ideas’ or pressures! Just keep sensible, balanced circulation of your body’s energy in mind at all times 🙂

    (Of real and fuller benefit though are daily headstands, or at least regularly lying flat at a slant with the head lower than than the feet.. then it is also about HOW we are sitting when we do.. Our current traditional chair is proving problematic and unnatural for our posture, while more evolved chair solutions are out that understand our body structure so much better. Those chairs that support your spine, for example, by supporting you from beneath your knees rather than from behind your back are easing problems many encounter with sitting.

    I would like to suggest having a comfortable high stool to go with it, in order to allow one to alternate between sitting and standing..

    In the meantime, I would just like to thank you, Katie, for your great contribution all round!! Great info and dedication. The info on phytic acid, for example, has been ‘life-changing’. Reaaally nice work!

  22. Thanks for the information Katie! I always appreciate learning something new. I’d love to learn some of the stretches and movements recommended to break up sitting. However, after clicking the link you provided, it is not feasible for me to pay to learn this information. We are on an extremely tight budget with one income and trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps you can share a few examples with those of us who cannot afford to purchase the program? Thanks again for all you do to promote health and wellness!

  23. I had a bout of sciatica in late 2014. It was not the sciatica where the nerve is pinched in between vertebrae. There is another type where the sciatic nerve is exposed in the gluteus. My physical therapy lasted a few months, and toward the end of it I asked my therapist if it would be a good idea to start working out with weights more, focusing on the gluteus region. He said definitely. I had been terribly sedentary before the sciatica. I have a host of health issues, mostly stemming from long term HIV infection and 2 cases of cancer.

    Almost 2 years later, I am in the best shape in my life (at age 57). What I’d like to add to the discussion here is that after years of sitting, it may be a good idea to do some weight training to rebuild your leg muscles, glutes and core. Those muscles really come in handy. Since I have rebuilt mine, it feels like I have a new body (or new car). I hired a personal trainer (total eye-candy), but this helps me with focus and is well worth the $60 per session (the same price as my physical therapist). So I consider my trainer part of my health insurance expense. Plus I look a lot better too.