Is Sitting Worse than Eating Donuts?

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The dangers of sitting and what to do about it
Wellness Mama » Blog » Health » Is Sitting Worse than Eating Donuts?

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 (unless you’re eating healthy homemade ones) and 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.

This makes it important to modify our home and office environments to reduce the amount of time we spend sitting in the first place. I cover all desk chair options I’ve tried in this post, but which alternatives to sitting are really healthiest?

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 convince myself 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.

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

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!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


35 responses to “Is Sitting Worse than Eating Donuts?”

  1. Olivia Avatar

    Productivity is a bit tricky to measure, but I have been standing at work for 6 years (60% of the day) so I will give it a try. I think you will find that Standup desks make you more alert providing you with more energy throughout the day. Sitting sends a signal to your body, “time to relax”, and standing up, even in not moving much sends the signal “time to get busy.” When you stand up, blood flows better, and your brain gets more oxygen, so it is know wonder you can “think better on your feet.” So for jobs that you tax your brain, try standing up. You end up doing more in less time and likely be more creative. So YES, you can be more productive standing up because of the natural energy boost.

  2. Cat Avatar

    As a person who has experienced both food insecurity and multiple repetitive strain injuries as a result of too much standing, I can say with some conviction that both sitting and donuts can have health benefits, and which one is better depends largely on your circumstances.

  3. Karim Avatar

    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.

  4. Lindsey Avatar

    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!

  5. nadia redpath Avatar
    nadia redpath

    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!

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