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Fight Back Against Too Much Sitting

Your Job May Be Killing You, Say Researchers

Len Kravitz, an exercise science professor at the University of New Mexico, walks his talk—literally. “I never stop moving,” he told the Albuquerque Journal earlier this year (May 2011). “If you’re talking with him one-on-one, you’ll take a walk around the gym,” a grad student told Journal reporter Amanda Schoenberg. Watching a lecture online, he’ll “walk, walk, walk around the house.” (He walks in place when a presentation is particularly interesting.) I do the same thing in the morning when I’m watching Fox Business. I also walk or do a warm-up routine during work breaks. I fidget during movies—and walk around in airports—while most of the people around me (except the kids) are about as mobile as a statue of Buddha. I move whenever I can without disrupting what I’m doing or making a spectacle of myself. Motion makes me more energetic, more productive—and keeps me well. 

Too much sitting is “a lethal activity,” Dr. James Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, and a leader in the fast emerging field of inactivity studies, told New York Times reporter James Vlahos. We’ve written about this before (http://www.cbass.com/Sitting.htm ), but the field has exploded with new findings and ways to fight back. 

Let’s talk about weight control and health concerns.

Sitting Makes Us Unhealthy and Fat

Why do some people gain weight when others don’t? They both eat an equivalent amount, but one gains weight and the other doesn’t. Why? To find out, Levine and colleagues used “magic underwear” to monitor every movement subjects made, no matter how small, including lying, walking, standing, or sitting. Subjects were told not to exercise.

After determining how much food the subjects needed to maintain their current weight, they began feeding them an extra 1,000 calories a day. Sure enough, some subjects piled on the pounds, while others gained little or no weight. But why? 

“We measured everything, thinking we were going to find some magic metabolic factor that would explain why some people didn’t gain weight,” Dr. Michael Jensen, a Mayo Clinic colleague of Dr. Levine, told reporter James Vlahos. With the help of the motion-tracking underwear, they found the answer. “The people who didn’t gain weight were unconsciously moving around more,” Dr. Jensen explained. Exercising more wasn’t the answer, because that was forbidden. They automatically compensated for the extra calories by moving more. The extra food incited them to up their activity level, by taking the stairs, walking faster, doing extra chores, or just fidgeting. “On average, the subjects who gained weight sat two hours more per day than those who didn’t,” Vlahos told his readers.  

The overweight people I see all around me (everywhere, movies, airports and so on) don’t seem to have any inclination to burn off excess calories. What's more, people who exercise regularly don’t appreciate the perils of being inactive between workouts.

“Exercise is not a perfect antidote for sitting,” Marc Hamilton, an inactivity researcher at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, told Vlahos. When we’re sitting, “the muscles go as silent as those of a dead horse,” Hamilton said. That leads to a cascade of harmful metabolic effects. Your calorie burn rate immediately plunges to about one per minute, a third of what it would be if you got up and walked around, according to Hamilton. Insulin drops within a single day, and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes rises, he added.  

Hamilton’s research has shown that rats forced to be inactive almost immediately lose more than 75% of their ability to remove harmful fats from their blood. Humans recorded a 40 percent reduction in insulin’s ability to uptake glucose—after only 24 hours of being sedentary.

As we noted in the earlier article (link above), too much sitting raises all-cause mortality risk by up to 47 percent; among other things, inactivity increases inflammation and impairs blood flow.

Inactivity researchers (Hamilton, Levine and others) believe that too much sitting is “an independent pathology.” Being sedentary all day is bad for your health—even if you go to the gym in the morning or evening.

Levine and others are exploring ways to encourage movement. “The soul of the nation is sapped [by the chair-based lifestyle], and now it’s time for the soul of the nation to rise,” Levine opined philosophically.

Let’s have a look at some solutions from inactivity researchers and other sources. Some “get moving” techniques are high tech—and expensive. Others cost little, if anything, and may work just about as well.  Some that I’ve written about before bear repeating. Use your imagination and come up with activities that fit your environment and personality. Do stuff that works to you.

Ways to Stay Active between Workouts

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a real stand-up guy. There were no chairs in his office. "When he works, he stands. When he reads or writes, he uses a stand-up desk all day,” a spokeswoman said. “He's in great shape," she added. When queried about interrogation tactics that made terrorism detainees stand for up to four hours, he quipped: "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?"  

Rumsfeld just turned 79 slim and healthy, so he must still to be standing—and probably doing a lot more. His mind, memory—and wit—are razor sharp.

Lynn McFarlin, my doctor at the Cooper Clinic, delights in demonstrating his customized desk which at the push of a button becomes a standup work station. He told me during my latest visit that he switches to the stand-up mode in the afternoon when the last patient has left. I didn’t ask how much he paid for the desk, but he says it’s great for his quirky back, so it must be worth the price. His weight doesn’t change from year to year, when I see him.

Some adventurous souls are going further; they’re using treadmill desks or work stations that cost as much as $4,000, maybe more. The idea is to slowly walk on the treadmill while working, according to Dr. Levine, who came up with the idea. His says people burn about 100 extra calories every hour while walking slowly—at 1 mile per hour—rather than sitting in a chair.

Dr. Levine uses one himself and knows many others who do. Some have lost up to 40 pounds in a year. He lost 20 pounds.  

Some sit on an exercise ball while they work—Len Kravitz keeps one by his desk—to use muscles in their back, legs, and abdomen in a way that chairs don’t.

Others keep small dumbbells under their desk to use during breaks. I have a pair of three pound dumbbells on my desk, but I use them as paper weights and to prop up books. Maybe I’ll give them a try.

A gym owner told me years ago never to lie down when I could sit up, sit when I could stand, or walk when I could run. Golf was his least favorite game—because the better you get, the fewer strokes you need to win the match. I don’t know about the golf analogy, but the general idea has many applications at home and on the job.

Never take the elevator when you can conveniently take the stairs. Stand up when you talk on the telephone. Instead of sending an E-mail, walk down the hall and deliver the message in person. 

Park your car within walking distance of your office or work place or on the far side of the supermarket parking lot.

And, of course, take frequent breaks at home or work; walk around, stretch, do some burpees, what ever appeals to you. Roll around on the floor with your kids—or your wife/husband.

Go for a walk when you’re trying to solve a problem or have brain lock. You’ll be amazed how quickly the answer pops into your head.

Again, use your imagination. Program movement into your day. You’ll feel better, think better, and be more productive. You’ll also be leaner and probably live longer.

*  *  *

Unless you just want you, there’s no need to purchase a stand-up desk or a treadmill workstation. There are many inexpensive and convenient ways to put movement into your waking hours. All you really have to do is make your mind up to get moving—and then act. Here’s an idea that may not have occurred to you. 

Instead of a perfunctory stretch when you wake up in the morning, take a few minutes to loosen your joints and get your blood flowing. Here’s how I do it.

Open and close your hands, flex and extend your wrists and elbows, and then flex and extent your feet and roll your ankles back and forth. Now pull up your knees and roll your hips right and left, and then flex and extend you legs without letting your heels rest on the bed. Finally, bridge your torso up toward the ceiling with your shoulders and feet supporting your body on the bed. Contract your butt at the top of the motion.

Now, sit on the side of the bed. Touch your fingers behind your back, and then slowly raise your bent arms to the side as high as you can; you’ll only be able to go a little above shoulder level. Now, push your elbows behind your body and then rotate your arms up and back over your head, stretching/arching your back at the top. Move on to shoulder shrugs with your arms at your sides. Now, swing your extended arms along the plain of your body over your head and back down.

Finally, move and stretch your neck in all directions. Touch your chin to your chest (or as close as you can), and then rotate your head as far back as you can, looking up at the ceiling. Now, move your head side to side, touching your shoulders if you can. Finally, rotate your head side to side; do it a few times your back stable, and then put your back into the motion and rotate to the rear as far as you can.

Do each movement several times; whatever feels right. I generally do 3 to 5 of each movement, sometimes more.  

This little routine is a good way to wake up and start your day. Add or change anything you like. If it feels good, do it. 

You’ll be surprised how good motion at the dawn of your day feels. Try it. You’ll like it.

Now it’s up to you. Get moving—your way.

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