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Is sitting the new smoking? Dr. Brown adds to the conversation

By Dr. Susan E. Brown, PhD

“Is sitting the new smoking?” This thought-provoking question has made the news a lot, thanks to the work done by Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic.  He’s compared the negative health effects of sitting to those of smoking — including higher risks of cancers and heart disease — and described our modern lifestyle of desk jobs and too much screen time as “lethal.”

I couldn’t agree with Dr. Levine more about the human body’s need to move. And as an anthropologist and a bone researcher, I’m fascinated by new findings that show for millions of years our human ancestors had much high bone density than we do today.

Anthropologists discovered this when comparing the bones joints modern humans and chimpanzees and from fossils of extinct humans. 

It seems that our modern, lighter, human skeletons evolved only 12,000 years ago — a very short time ago, anthropologically speaking! Specifically, what anthropologists see happening is a thinning of the weight-bearing, inner spongy trabecular bone and a subsequent weakening of bone architecture. This has occurred with the advent of a more sedentary agrarian lifestyle.  What I say is that while we will never be as active as our foraging ancestors, there’s a lot we can do get in motion.

Here are some ideas for sitting less, moving more:

  • Stand while you are on the phone
  • Use a desk you can stand at or even better — a treadmill desk
  • Take the stairs – at home, at the mall, everywhere
  • Set a timer to remind you to get up and move every hour
  • Walk over to a colleague’s desk, rather than emailing.  I do this, even though the office is very small!
  • Think of where you can shift your own patterns to include less sitting. For example, if you enjoy watching TV, can you watch it standing up? Or at least stand during commercials?
  • Commit yourself to walking at least 15 minutes twice a day and use weighted vest as appropriate
  • And my favorite — a golfing walk, skip the cart

For more ideas, read my article Exercise and bone health — use them or lose them or take a look in SHOP for helpful DVDs and exercise equipment to help get you started.


Chirchir, H et al. Recent origin of low trabecular bone density in modern humans.   PNAS, early edition, 2015.  www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1411696112

Ryan, T and C.  Shaw. Gracility of modern Homo sapiens skeletons is a result of decreased bio mechanical loading.  edition, 2015.  www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1411696112

American Museum of Natural History blog:  http://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/research-posts/new-research-lightweight-skeletons-of-modern-humans-evolved-recently

American Museum of Natural History press release: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-12/amon-lso121914.php

Image copyright American Museum of Natural History


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We created the Better Bones blog as our forum to express opinions and educate the public about natural means of supporting and improving bone health and overall wellness. As part of this forum, we sometimes discuss medical issues and medications, and their effects on bone health in general. However, we cannot advise readers about specific medical issues in this forum. If you wish to obtain advice from Susan E. Brown, PhD, about your specific bone health and nutritional concerns, please visit our Consultations page. Other specific medical questions should be referred to your healthcare provider.

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