Europe’s champion sitters: Even the sporty Dutch are falling victim to ‘chair-use disorder’ | Health & wellbeing

The Dutch are perceived as a nation of healthy giants, leaping on their bikes to cycle energetically across flat lands. But new research suggests they are in fact the “sitting champions of Europe”, with a sedentary lifestyle that causes thousands of early deaths.

Health experts are calling for urgent action to stop so-called “chair-use disorder” spreading across western countries. A report by the research organisation TNO, published on Friday, found too much sitting costs the Netherlands €1.2bn (£1bn) annually and leads to 21,000 premature deaths a year from cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is riskier, researchers found, to be a lawyer than a lorry driver.

“We are the European champions of sitting,” said Leonard Hofstra, a cardiologist, who has called excessive chair use an addiction. “Sitting is bad for us because the blood flow is stagnating. When you exercise, thousands of miles of blood vessels in your body generate a substance called nitric oxide – one of the most healthy substances you could imagine. It dilates the blood vessels, so blood flow increases, it prevents bad cholesterol from getting worse, it prevents the formation of clotting and inflammation: that’s the impact of exercise on our health. So this is a very bad thing to have as a country.”

Graphic showing which EU countries spend the most time sitting

TNO believes office sitting culture is damaging enough to be an occupational hazard and urges employers to institute exercise breaks, use standing desks and hold “walking meetings”.

“The Netherlands and the UK are comparable, although here in the Netherlands the percentage of people who are sitting over eight hours per day is 64%, so almost two-thirds of our population is at risk,” said Lidewij Renaud, a researcher. “It’s an individual problem but also a societal problem.”

The reason is not necessarily too little formal exercise because, unlike the British, the Dutch are among Europe’s sportiest nations. The issue is what people do the rest of the time.

“We have these guidelines to be active with moderate to vigorous intensity for 30 minutes a day from the World Health Organization, but that’s a very small portion of the day if you are awake for 16 hours,” said Renaud. “We are not really conscious about our sitting behaviour. You’re not sitting on the couch – you’re watching your streaming service. You’re not sitting at the table – you’re eating your lunch. You’re not sitting at your desk – you are working and being productive. Only in the last 15 years have we come to the conclusion that – oh, my God! – it does matter what we do for the other 15-and-a-half hours a day.”

In 2022, workers in the Netherlands sat on average for 8.9 hours a day, more than half of this during working time (and for an hour commuting). Lawyers, economists and IT workers are sitters par excellence, clocking up 7.3 hours a day – even more than lorry drivers at 7.2 hours. A Eurobarometer survey found that 26% of Dutch people over 16 sat for more than 8.5 hours a day – well above the EU average of 11%. Reducing this number by a quarter could prevent 5,200 “sitting deaths” a year, according to TNO, which based its calculations on British methodology.

The Dutch are said to be sportier than the British. Photograph: Danita Delimont/Alamy

The problem, which is linked to a prevalence of service industry jobs, appears to have worsened as a result of increased home working after the pandemic, plus technology – from home entertainment to superfast delivery services – that dispatch essentials to your sofa.

Earlier this year the Dutch sports council urged the government to make people stand up more. Erik Scherder, a council member and professor of neuropsychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, says exercise also affects the brain. He invites his students to do three minutes of squats for every half an hour of lectures.

“If children are sitting all day at school and play [computer] games at home instead of playing outside, this is alarming,” he said. “The networks in your brain that are involved in motor functioning show a large overlap with those networks that are involved in mathematics and language comprehension. If you skip physical functioning, you really harm the development of your other functions.”

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