‘Too much sitting’ linked to tens of thousands of deaths each year

Sedentary activity contributes to almost 70,000 deaths in Britain annually, study finds

Researchers in two Northern Irish universities have found that spending too much time sitting down contributes to tens of thousands of deaths every year.

The team of researchers at Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University found that sedentary activity during the day is linked to almost 70,000 deaths in Britain per year, and costs the health service in the UK £700 million annually.

Leonie Heron of the Centre for Public Health at QUB said that the findings were likely to be replicated in the Republic of Ireland due to similarities in culture and lifestyle between the two jurisdictions.

“The UK and Ireland have fairly similar cultures and genetic backgrounds,” she said. “Sedentary behaviour is harming people’s health in the Republic as well, of course”. She added that the study, however, was based on data on the prevalence of sedentary behaviour in Britain, as well as NHS cost data.

Spending large parts of the day sitting down increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and death. The Northern Irish researchers for the first time sought to estimate the financial impact of sedentary behaviour on the UK health service.

The research suggests that 11.6 per cent of all deaths in the UK were associated with sedentary behaviour. However, they said that the costs are probably a conservative estimate of the true burden of sedentary behaviour, as it is likely to be associated with several other cancers, musculoskeletal disorders, as well as mental health disorders which are not included in their analysis.

According to research by the Irish Department of Health, published in 2016, around 26 per cent of the population in the Republic engage in sedentary behaviour. This was categorised by the researchers as having spent eight or more hours sitting during the previous day. Eight out of ten of those who were sedentary also had a second unhealthy activity such as low fruit or vegetable consumption, binge drinking, or smoking.

Ms Heron told The Irish Times that people should look for “small, easy ways to change their behaviour”. “In an office job, there’s things like standing desks and treadmill desks,” she said, “[OR] taking opportunities to move when you can, for example talking to a colleague instead of sending an email”.

She warned that offsetting sedentary periods with exercise or other physical activity would not totally eliminate the risk to health brought about by sitting down too much. “You can lessen the risk by being active at other times, but it’s still not good for your health if you’re sitting for long periods of time,” she said.

The Northern Irish research combined published data on the impact of sedentary behaviour on five specific health conditions with figures on the percentage of adults who are sedentary on any given day of the week, and used that to estimate the impact of these behaviours on a population level.

The authors cautioned that the study couldn’t establish cause, and also relied on people’s self-reported estimates of activity levels, which might not be accurate.