“SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING” — What We Can Do About Killer Couches, Sedentary Schools, and the Pandemic of Inactivity

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

Sitting is the new smoking. That’s a useful new buzz-phrase for what some health experts are calling the “pandemic of inactivity.”

In January, the Harvard Business Review published “Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation,” an article by Nilofer Merchant. “The common denominator in the modern workday is our, um, tush,” wrote Merchant, a corporate director at a NASDAQ-traded firm and a former founder and CEO of Rubicon. “As we work, we sit more than we do anything else.” Add in the time we sit at home, and we’re averaging 9.3 hours of sit time every day.

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And children? Think of schools. Some do a good job getting kids moving. But at other schools, too many students spend most of their time sitting. At their desks, in front of computers, taking tests, sitting in schools where recess and gym class have been restricted or eliminated. Even in preschools, most children sit in the classroom for most of the day — and even when they go outside, more than half of their activities remain sedentary. Then they’re driven home (sitting) to sit some more. It’s killing them. It’s killing us.

An Australian study found that for each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent, according to The New York Times.

Diet and genetics contribute to obesity and overweight, but so does simple inactivity — and prolonged sitting may be a killer even if we don’t put on the pounds. In July, The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, launched a series of alarming reports, confirming that physical inactivity is a leading risk factor for deaths due to non-communicable diseases. “Researchers conclude that inactivity is causing 5.3 million deaths per year,” according to the journal’s summary. “Further, this is very similar to the number of deaths attributed [by the World Health Organization] to tobacco smoking, and one of the papers in this series calculated the population attributable risk to be very similar for tobacco and inactivity.”

When I visited Houston last week, a city known for its advanced medical facilities, the topic of inactivity – and its relationship to child obesity – was a focus of intense discussion. That was due, partly, to a Texas-sized obesity rate in the state, and it was also due to the fact that one of the lead researchers on inactivity is Harold “Bill” Kohl, professor of epidemiology and kinesiology with the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

“Although regular physical activity is critical for weight control, it is equally or more important for lowering risk of many different chronic diseases such as heart disease, some cancers, osteoporosis and diabetes,” according to Kohl, who wrote the final paper in The Lancet series. Add to this list of maladies the harm to psychological health and cognitive skills, which in turn can exacerbate health problems and contribute to weight gain.

What to do? The answer isn’t necessarily at the gym, but in how we move throughout the day. In the workplace, standing desks are “a step forward,” according to Merchant. “But even that, while it gets you off your duff, won’t help you get real exercise. So four years ago, I made a simple change when I switched one meeting from a coffee meeting to a walking-meeting. This changed my life. I’ve learned that if you want to get out of the box thinking, you need to literally get out of the box.”

Merchant now walks 20 to 30 miles every week, and has held hundreds of walking meetings.

Wired magazine reports that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg does walk-and-talk meetings, too; so did Steve Jobs. Nonetheless, tech companies, individually or through their philanthropies, do little to encourage physical activity or nature experiences in schools. Instead, they push for the increasingly computer-dependent classroom.

In fairness, the business culture’s bottom-line influence on education did some good during the past two decades; it helped raise a few test scores and increased the amount of technology in the classroom. But in other ways, that influence was disastrous; it helped lead to more desk time, more inactivity (which just might be related to hyperactivity), more child obesity and more Type II diabetes among children.

Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence indicates that children need far more activity, including unstructured play, to improve health, cognition and emotional well-being. Nature-based exercise appears to be especially effective. As a result, some pediatricians and mental health professionals are now prescribing “green exercise” in parks and other natural settings. And at least some schools and determined natural teachers are insisting that their students do a portion of their learning outdoors, in nature — adding priceless balance to their lives.

If technology is going to create a better future, its leaders should devote at least a modicum of energy to getting kids moving again (sorry, Wii Golf just won’t do), preferably outside in nature. Hard to imagine? Take a cue from Nilofer Merchant: “You’ll be surprised at how fresh air drives fresh thinking.”


Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

More reading:

Indoor Education for Outdoor Learning? What’s Wrong With This Picture?

“Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation,” Harvard Business Review

“Effects of Physical Inactivity …” The Lancet

“Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?” The New York Times

“In Silicon Valley, Sitting is the New Smoking,” Wired

Preschoolers More Sedentary Than Thought

 Sitting May Be The New Smoking According to New Research, PRWEB, American Cancer Institute

*Note: The meme “Sitting is the new smoking” may have been launched in a Nov. 25, 2011 publicity release from the American Institute of Cancer Research. But now it’s entering the language, thanks largely to Nilofer Merchant.

Photo via Creative Commons:Flickr


  1. A small example of moving instead of sitting is that we try to ride our bikes to school or walk to school as much as we can with my girls. They’re 7 and 9 and it’s only 1.5-mile one way, a great way to start or end a school day. Even if my 9-year old is somewhat reluctant to walk or ride her bike, in the end she’s always happy she did it. Since it’s only my 2 girls and I, we can’t just all do it in silence, reading a book or watching someone else’s video game over their shoulder on the bus.

    We notice seasonal changes in the trees. We talk about school and their friends. We sing silly songs and make up rhymes. We plan trips for the weekend or the holidays. We discuss movies, books or TV. We do things we probably wouldn’t do on a bus or underground because it’s a lot more passive and it’s crowded.

    I love that commute to school. It’s a great opportunity to spend some time with my girls talking about things that matter to them – or complete nonsense. The thing is – we talk and we move.

  2. I love this article. I’ve been noticing a lot how detached people are from life, I think it’s due to inactivity.


    “..each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent, according to The New York Times.”

    Silly NY Times. The risk of dying is 100%, everyone will eventually die. Did you mean the risk of dying before [certain age] rose by 11%?

  3. I rather like the term “Net Walking” for group walks where people meet and get to know each other. When I was a school principal, a newly appointed depute never forgot her induction meeting. It was a river walk in knee deep snow in the winter!

    The other term I’ve also heard of is “Mobile Meetings” which is just that – meetings on the move.

  4. I just find it all so difficult to comprehend how our schools became like this in the first instance. I know it has all been creeping up slowly over the years and now as you say the more technology there is the less physical activity that is taking place.
    I have even witnessed recently at a friends house, the brother texting the sister who is in the same building but rather than walk upstairs to ask her something it was easier to send the text. Isn’t that worrying when you think about it all?

    Being a green school and a healthy environment is so important. Kids should be active and engaged in the natural world if we are going to stand any chance of recovering from this environmental mess that we now face.

  5. There’s some great stories on teachers replacing chairs with yoga/exercise balls in the classroom to help kids focus more. Just be sure to cover your exercise ball:

  6. Sitting is the new smoking! I have never read this but we are ALL less active now that we spend more time each day in front of screens, whether it be for work or pleasure. My youngest son LOVES to go out and ride his bike for hours. Thank God for that! My older son enjoys playing outside sports with friends. Thank God for that, as well! I still dislike the time they spend (even with homework) in front of a screen. I like the idea of stand up desks (I taught special needs kids and sometimes this was just how they learned best), walking meetings, and just walking the dog. The best thing we ever did was buy our dog 5 years ago. Dogs are the ultimate social equalizer. It is so easy to meet people, be outside, and walk when you have a living thing that is counting on it!

  7. The answer is simple:

    Active Transportation

    Make it safe for people to walk or ride a bike as their primary transportation, and many of the problems mentioned in the article will go away.

    Like I said, simple.

  8. The statistics don’t completely add up. If they did. People who are paralysed from the waist down would all be dead by 30. Yes sitting too much is dangerous but 11% more deadly per additional hour of tv (additional to how much?)


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