The costs and benefits of prolonging life

I pretty much sit all day, mostly working on the computer or reading. I have done this all my life. I am told that I should exercise more but have not done so, due to a combination of laziness and other factors. I now see a report that says that my daily routine of largely sitting is going to kill me and that occasional walking would not have helped anyway.

A new study finds that regularly sitting for hours on end can ultimately lead to premature death, and those potentially lethal effects can’t be countered with frequent exercise.

Over the course of four years, 340 study participants died. Columbia University researchers concluded that “those with the greatest amount of sedentary time-more than 13 hours per day-and who frequently had sedentary bouts of at least 60 to 90 consecutive minutes had a nearly twofold increase in death risk compared with those who had the least total sedentary time and the shortest sedentary bouts.” Researchers also determined that “those who frequently sat in stretches less than 30 minutes had a 55 percent lower risk of death compared to people who usually sat for more than 30 minutes at a stretch,” according to CNN. Too much sitting was directly related to “all-cause mortality”-that is, dying of any fatal cause-regardless of age, race, sex, body mass index or exercise habits.

One of the authors of the study suggests that “for every 30 consecutive minutes of sitting, stand up and move/walk for five minutes at a brisk pace to reduce the health risks from sitting.”

That is the kind of advice that sounds so easy to do that there really is no excuse for not following it. So why I have I not done so? Because I, like so many others, am constantly inundated with so many other bits of advice, each also easy to do. If I try to do all, that would be pretty time consuming. Since I am not sure which piece of advice is the most useful to pick and follow, I end up following none of them.

Did I mention that I am also lazy?

Part of the problem is that I am by any measure an old person. At some point one has to wonder how much value a little bit of longer life actually adds. I take comfort in the fact that I’m with David Hume on this one. In his posthumously published brief autobiography My Own Life, he wrote the following:

In spring, 1775, I was struck with a disorder in my bowels, which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits; insomuch, that were I to name a period of my life, which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this later period. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company. I consider, besides, that a man of sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities; and though I see many symptoms of my literary reputation’s breaking out at last with additional lustre, I knew that I could have but few years to enjoy it. It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.

Rat in the comic strip Pearls Before Swine seems to have read Hume too.


  1. cartomancer says

    I note the article only talks about a “doubled” or “55% higher” risk of death. It would be really nice to know what this means in absolute terms. Is that a 2% chance of dropping dead each year rather than a 1% chance, or are we talking a 50% chance rather than a 25% chance? I’d not be too worried if it’s the former.

  2. jrkrideau says

    Twenty-three and a half hours a day!

    @ 1 cartomancer
    We would probably have to pull the original paper and see exactly how the results are reported.
    Conclusions Health inequalities are most commonly reported using only relative measures of effect, which may influence readers’ judgments of the magnitude, direction, significance, and implications of reported health inequalities.

    Or as David Friedman puts it : One of the things I have learned from reading secondary sources on historical cooking is that you should never trust a secondary source that does not include the primary, since you have no way of knowing what liberties the author may have taken in his “interpretation” of the recipe.

  3. busterggi says

    Didn’t some folks try to do a 150 year long study on healthy habits but all the subjects and researchers died off before it could be completed?

  4. jrkrideau says

    George Bernard Shaw The Doctor’s Dilemma
    That any sane nation, having observed that you could provide for the supply of bread by giving bakers a pecuniary interest in baking for you, should go on to give a surgeon a pecuniary interest in cutting off your leg, is enough to make one despair of political humanity.

  5. file thirteen says

    Such studies focus almost exclusively on the mortality rate. That’s because it’s much easier to measure than a decline in quality of life. However, all illnesses degrade quality of life, and the higher death toll may be consequent to unrelated illnesses that might not kill an otherwise healthy person.

    So if I hear of a study that determines that performing an action, or refraining from another action, reduces the chance of death, then I don’t think of the death itself (which doesn’t scare me) but of the increased misery leading up to that inevitable death. Case in point, smoking and the horrible diseases you often get before you pass away (emphysema etc).

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