The toxic triangle: is standing any better

The Sydney Morning Herald

Hold on to your seats, because standing is no better than sitting! Or so reports of a new study, much touted by the media in the past week, suggest.

The study of more than 5000 people over a 16-year period found that sitting is not the new smoking.

Instead, the researchers from the University of Exeter found no major difference between the mortality rates of those who sat and those who stood for similar periods. What made the difference to premature mortality was how much people moved in general.

“Our study overturns current thinking on the health risks of sitting and indicates that the problem lies in the absence of movement, rather than the time spent sitting itself,” study author Dr Melvyn Hillsdon​ says.

It’s not bad advice for people to move more. But, is standing up really no better than sitting?

What about the impact of being hunched for extended periods of time or the fact that standing is more active than sitting? We spend as much as 80 per cent of our working day sedentary and, unsurprisingly, a similar percentage of Australians experience back pain.

The participants in the study were British civil servants based in the English capital and this means they are exposed to more incidental exercise than most, Associate Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis​ of the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Charles Perkins Centre notes.

“There are three aspects to the problem,” he explains. “The problem is that people don’t do enough exercise that is intense; people don’t do enough physical activity, just walking or cycling; and people are sitting too much. The combination is a toxic triangle that may be worse than smoking.”

Of course, sitting too much – which results in weak core muscles – can lead to or aggravate back problems.

In his own new research, of 200,000 Australians over a four-year period, the findings contrasted with those of the University of Exeter study. “We found that replacing one hour of sitting per day with one hour of standing was linked to health benefits,” Stamatakis says.

Taking it a literal step further – swapping the hour of sitting with walking or other physical activity – decreased the chance of an early death by 12 to 14 per cent. “The sit/stand desk was not meant to be a complete solution,” Stamatakis says. “It has its place. A complete solution would be more physical activity, to sit less and to stand more.”