I was excited when I saw Nilofer Merchant’s article, Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation on the Harvard Business Review Blog. I wanted to know the angle that would be presented in comparing sitting to smoking. However, I was disappointed because the article really focused on the benefits walking has on health and the death rate associated with obesity. I don’t have anything against getting up off your butt and moving, but I already know the stats — 10,000 steps a day — of incorporating walking into one’s daily regimen. I was hoping for an eye opener behind the statement, which didn’t materialize. Merchant said,
“As we work, we sit more than we do anything else…. Sitting is so prevalent and so pervasive that we don’t even question how much we’re doing it. And, everyone else is doing it also, so it doesn’t even occur to us that it’s not okay. In that way, I’ve come to see that sitting is the smoking of our generation.”
I have to disagree with the analogy that “sitting is the smoking of our generation.” After all, just step outside of any public space — a government building or office building, for example — and you’ll immediately see large signs posted: no smoking within 20 feet of the building. Merchant even gives us stats on obesity and smoking, stating:
“… health studies conclude that people should sit less, and get up and move around…. You might already know that the death rate associated with obesity in the US is now 35 million. But do you know what it is in relationship to Tobacco? Just 3.5 million.”
So, let’s look at this a different way to determine who is really moving more — the desk hugger or the smoker. I’ll tell you why the smoker is actually moving more. But, a mini history lesson first. If you’re from the Baby Boomer generation like me, you will recall that office workers were allowed to smoke at their desk — no lie, it’s true! However, that is not true today. Laws have been passed in almost every state that smoking is not allowed inside any public building. Due to these laws, smokers actually move around more than their nonsmoking colleagues, who remain confined to their desks and computers. In essence, saying that sitting is the smoking of our generation doesn’t rang true. Sitting and smoking are not comparable in this instance. Banning indoor smoking causes 10-25 percent of the workforce to trek outdoors to take an unofficial 10-to-15-minute smoke break. And, since birds of a feather flock together, these coworkers are outside congregating and conversing. Therefore, during an eight-hour workday, not including the lunch break, smokers are off their butts 60-90 minutes more than their nonsmoking comrades. And these unofficial breaks really cause angst among the nonsmoking coworkers; they are incensed that they aren’t privy to unofficial breaks. Therefore, nonsmokers are more confined to their desks than smokers. Even though smokers in the workplace are contributing adversely to their health — but only 3.5 million according to Merchant — they are still moving more than the nonsmokers who are sitting for eight hours, five days a week.
Even though I love to walk — and I’m not a smoker — I would not enjoy walking in a meeting setting, so to speak. It’s too many things to be cognizant of, which would take my focus away from the issues at hand. I don’t want to be concerned with noisy surroundings (i.e., traffic), stopping and starting at “do not walk/walk” lights, pedestrians, etc. I, for one, prefer the office or even a coffee shop meeting.
So, is sitting the smoking of our generation? From my perspective, I say it is not.