Sitting is the new smoking

There's a new battle cry emanating from the cubicle. Workers are waking up to the fact that inactivity — save for some crazy typing fingers — has now become a health hazard. Computers keep workers close to their desks. Studies show the harm of prolonged sitting; some suggest lawsuits many not be far off.

Medical ethicist Art Caplan told Boston Public Radio on Wednesday that the health of the American workforce is imperiled by our need to sit.

"I find the whole thing beyond depressing," Caplan said. "A lot of folks are stuck at a desk in a cubicle, they're not going to be standing or whatever. That's the job. I can't tell you how dismally awful this study make me feel."

Caplan noted that things like treadmill desks, frequent breaks, and exercise regimens may help reduce the problems caused by sitting. A new study published in the journal PLOS One found that treadmill workstations increase "overall performance, quality and quantity of performance, and interactions with coworkers."

"I still wouldn't cancel my health club membership. I still wouldn't stop my 20-minute walk," Caplan said.

Our stylishly modern lives — what with the high-powered computers, ready-made food and prevalence of on-demand services — have made life easier. They may also shorten our lives in the process.

"If you walked constantly and hunted your own food and grew it you'd probably be healthier," Caplan said. "We're probably not going to hunt the deer in the neighborhood to work off the calories."

Caplan noted that exercise involves a trade-off, one that cubicle-bound workers may not want to make. 

"If you ran 50 minutes a day, you would add a year of life, and that sounds good, right? But if you hate jogging, then all you've done is added a year of miserable life."

Ever sought a second opinion?

In a recent opinion piece for the Boston Globe, writer Jerry Cianciolo posited that too few Americans seek a second opinion after a doctor's initial diagnosis. Cianciolo cited a 2010 Gallup poll that found 70 percent of Americans were content with the primary physician's assessment.

"Despite the advent of health website and other widely available sources ... 70 percent of Americans feel confident in the accuracy of their doctor's advice," the researchers wrote. They noted confidence in physicians had risen over eight years.

Art Caplan said that even in the rigorous medical profession there is room for error.

"It's very important to think about second opinions when you're going to undergo major diagnostic testing, and major interventions — radiation, surgery. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it."

Many people are shy about contradicting a medical professional's advice. They may not want to alienate a doctor with whom they've developed a good rapport.

"The right doctor should never be afraid of a second opinion," Caplan said. "There's nothing wrong with getting another view."

The Gallup poll found that the college-educated weren't more likely than those with a high school education to seek another opinion. While education may not be a factor, Caplan said expense could be a contributing factor.

The dangers of the "anti-vaxxer" movement

Recent visitors to the Disneyland theme park in Southern California came away with more than just a thrilling adventure in the land of enchantment. Fifty-two people reported contracting the measles after visiting the self-proclaimed "Happiest Place on Earth."

The reason was simple: unvaccinated children brought the virus into the friendly Disney confines.

The anti-vaccine gained steam in the mid-1990s. Supporters sought to avoid the measles vaccine for religious or pseudo-medical reasons. The CDC officially declared the measles eradicated in 2000. Due to the anti-vaccine movement, measles surged back.

"The resistors or 'anti-vaxxers' — they're in the well-educated suburbs and neighborhoods. If we were in Massachusetts we'd find them in [places like] Concord," Art Caplan said. "People are going to say, 'Look, I don't vaccinate you, I don't put anything impure in you,'" and that's wrong.

Caplan thought strict punishments were in order for parents whose unvaccinated children transmit potentially life-threatening — and easily preventable — ailments.

"Sure, you can choose not to vaccinate, but why should it be free to omit the consequences if your kid makes my kid sick?" Caplan asked. "If you made my kid sick and they suffered and died," you'll be punished.

>> Hear Art Caplan every Wednesday on Boston Public Radio. Caplan is cohost of the Everyday Ethics podcast.