Saturday, January 4, 2014

Sitting Kills!

I know! Shocking! High drama here at the barre, but it's true. Sitting kills, people. Sitting kills people. (This is one of those cases where the comma doesn't really have dire consequences. Unlike the classic, 'Let's eat, Grandma!' vs. 'Let's eat Grandma!' In which case, someone would also be killed. But I digress.)

Actually, it's not so much the act of sitting, but the staying there that's the problem. This is according to the research of Dr. Joan Vernikos, the former director of NASA's Life Sciences division. Her job was to assess the health of astronauts before, during and after space missions. Being an astronaut seems like a pretty cool job, no? Maybe, but as it turns out, it wreaks havoc with your body.
This is Dr. Vernikos. See? She's not sitting!

Dr. Vernikos and her colleagues found that astronauts manifested many disturbing symptoms after returning from jaunts in space, including reduced strength and stamina, back pain, disturbed balance, decreased cardiac output and kidney stones, just to name a few. In short, they experienced the same symptoms associated with aging. Yes, cool as it may be, spending time in space ages the human body--even a mission of just a few days had a profoundly negative impact.
This is her fascinating book.
The reason? Gravity. Or lack thereof. It turns out we really need gravity. Obviously, so long as we're living on earth, we're experiencing gravity, even when we're parked in the dreaded chair, but standing up, sitting down, squatting, pushing and pulling all require us to work against the force of gravity, and that is very beneficial. Our bodies were designed to interact with gravity, and when we're deprived of this opportunity, bad things happen. Long periods of uninterrupted sitting has been found to be an independent risk factor for premature death.

!!! I know. Refer to image above.

If premature death isn't enough of a motivator for you, here's another: movement stimulates the enzyme lipoprotein lipase, which attaches to your fat cells and transports them to your muscles to be used as fuel. (Of course, how the body uses fuel is more involved that that, but movement heads you in the right direction.) Pretty cool, huh? Almost as cool as being an astronaut.

As I mentioned earlier, it isn't actually the sitting that is the problem--it's prolonged sitting. As it turns out, prolonged standing isn't much better; the key is to alter your position frequently. We weren't meant to sit at a desk all day. We were designed to squat, kneel, bend, move.

Dr. Vernikos recommends standing up at least 35 times per day, but these standings-up must be spread out throughout the day. You can't just bob up and down 35 times in a row and call it good. It isn't. The whole point is making these sitting interruptions a part of your whole day.

I know, this is disquieting for many of you with desk jobs, but it turns out the solution isn't that difficult. Really, just stand up and sit back down again. Early and often. That's it! You don't have to do anything particularly heroic to avoid the problem.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you're the type who gets engrossed in computer work, set a timer to go off every 20 minutes to remind you to stand up. Seems silly, maybe, but timers are awesome. I love timers. I use them for all kinds of things. Eventually it will become a habit and you won't need the timer anymore.
  • If you use a laptop or iPad primarly, keep in on a higher surface, like a counter. I keep mine in my kitchen for this very reason. I found when I kept in at a desk or on the coffee table, I would plant my bum on a seat, never to rise again. While prolonged standing isn't really better for you than sitting, you're much more likely to move around from a standing position than you are from a comfy chair.
  • Speaking of chairs, Dr. Vernikos suggests using a straight-backed, hard chair without arm rests. Why? It's less comfortable, thus you're less likely to park in it for hours. Also, a straight-backed chair will encourage better posture.
  • If you are an office worker, try to rearrange your work station so everything is NOT within reach of your swivel chair. It will force you to get up and down, to reach and move, making these movements a natural part of your work day. (And while you're at it, ditch the swivel chair.)  
So those are the facts. Now it's time for my color commentary. (I know, it's your favorite part.)

An interesting thing has occurred since I started blogging about exercise. Numerous people from my real life have told me how they struggle with fitting exercise into their daily lives. Many people have great reasons for this, everything from crazy work schedules to new babies to injuries--some of them quite major and tragic. People lament their inability to 'exercise' and tell me how much they wish they could work up a good sweat.

And I feel their pain. Truly. You know how I feel about sweating. In a workout, anyway. Love it. And I'm quite good at it, as you may recall.

But sometimes life gets in the way, and this is why I love it when I come across research like this. Studies like the ones Dr. Vernikos has conducted show us that just doing a formal workout for 30-60 minutes a day does not give you a free pass to sit around for the rest of the day. Moving around is important. If your 'workout' leaves you so exhausted that you can't bring yourself to move around during the day, then you need to cut back on the workout.

You can do an awful lot for your physical health by just moving around during the day. If you just had a baby, you are exhausted and probably not exercising. But you are certainly still moving around, because babies keep you on your feet. You're moving, walking, bouncing, swaying, swinging, all to the soothe the blessed infant who won't--for the love of God and all that is holy--take a frickin' nap without movement. You're baby is probably most comfortable when you are uncomfortable, which stinks--but take heart! It's good for you!

Don't you feel better now? No? I don't blame you. I wouldn't either. But don't beat yourself up for not getting in a workout. You're moving, and it's good for you.

At the same time, I do think it's important to do challenging exercise, but if you're in a season of life in which that's really hard to do, don't lament. Just stand up. And sit back down again. Over and over, throughout the day.


  1. Great topic.
    I'll pull this one out next time someone says that you need to do HIIT for 15 minutes a day (or something of the sort) or exercise doesn't "count".

    1. Exactly. I had started in on a big rant about how I hate dogmatic exercise requirements, but then I realized the post would have been waaayyyy too long, so I'll save up my spicy rant for another day. :)

  2. My secret for standing up more often at work is herbal tea. (I may have mentioned this before.) Every extra trip to the department kitchen to make a cup of tea is followed by a corresponding trip to the restroom. It's a great system. :)

    On a related note, herbal tea is also one of my secrets for cutting calories. When I require myself to drink a certain minimum number of cups of tea per day, I can't fit in as much food because I'm swimming in tea.

    1. Good strategy! Birth a few kids and you'll be up and down to the loo more than you ever thought possible!