PhotoIt's been said that “sitting is the new smoking” – that sedentary behavior that is becoming more common in American life is taking a toll on public health, shaving years off the expected lifespan.

Previous research – and there's been plenty of it in recent years – has suggested that people who spend a lot of time sitting and watching television usually eat a less healthy diet. The question is why.

A study by American Cancer Society investigators, in collaboration with the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition and the University of Texas School of Public Health, suggests the sitting has little to do with it, instead attributing it to exposure to commercials for high calorie foods and distracted eating.

When the researchers outfitted test subjects with accelerometers – devices that measure physical activity – they were able to more precisely measure how sedentary the individual test subjects were. With that objective data, they hoped to learn if there is some kind of link between sitting around and engaging in other unhealthy behavior, like eating an unhealthy diet, drinking too much alcohol and smoking.

Conflicting results

According to many previous research, a link does in fact exist. According to the new research, it doesn't.

“While every minute of additional moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity was related to a higher Healthy Eating Index (HEI) score, eating more fruits, and consuming fewer empty calories, more minutes per day spent in sedentary time was not significantly associated with overall dietary quality (HEI) and fruit and vegetables intake,” the authors conclude.

In fact, they write that people who spend more sedentary time are significantly less likely to consume empty calories.

The researchers say almost no one has approached the question the way they have – relying on accelerometer data to objectively measured sedentary time in relation to dietary quality. Their takeaway is that maybe there should be a decoupling of sedentary behavior and dietary guidelines.

People are going to sit, they argue. They should be encouraged to get up and move around once in a while and they should also be encouraged to consume a healthy, balanced diet. But the two things don't necessarily need to be tied together.

Earlier studies

So why have so many health researchers in recent years targeted sitting as bad for your health? One of the earliest warnings came in 2011 from the American College of Cardiologists, which compared the health effects of prolonged sitting to smoking cigarettes.

The cardiologists pointed out your body doesn't burn as many calories when you are seated. Your body goes into storage mode and stops working at peak efficiency. Standing up, even if you aren't moving about, helps, they said.

It sounds like the authors of this latest study don't really disagree with that. They're just saying there is nothing inherent in a sedentary lifestyle that would cause you to consume lots of junk food.

If you're working at your desk all day, try to take frequent breaks and when you stop for lunch, have a salad every once in a while.

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