First Read This Sitting Down
Chairs are not dangerous to you as sculpture. Some Carlo Mollino and other 20th century designer chairs are now going for a million bucks. These types of chairs are perfectly safe as they are much too expensive to sit in.
The dangerous ones are the chairs of cloth, polyvinyl, naugahyde, imitation leather, cotton, wood, steel, and resin that you and I sit in – because sitting can be hazardous to your health – and survival.
Most people don’t take this information lying down – if they believe it. Yet the data have been accumulating for 60 years that sitting increases your chance of death. One recent study declared sitting more than six hours a day increased female mortality 37%, male mortality 17%.
What about you? Consider sitting at work, in front of the TV set or monitor, in your commuting car, at the dining table.
How many hours a day do you sit:
Does the number exceed six hours for either? Yes __ No__
Doing the Numbers
Here are some numbers to give pause to the stay in your chair crowd, a few courtesy of a nifty article by Maria Masters in Men’s Health, with support from Drs. Marc Hamilton and Peter Katzmarzyk of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center:
London trolley drivers in a 1953 study had half the coronary deaths as bus drivers. The trolley drivers had to move up and down their steps.
In a 2007 University of Missouri study, people who moved around a lot not “exercising,” but engaged in housework or physically active jobs, burned more calories than individuals who ran 35 miles a week and otherwise stayed sedentary.
New Yorkers live on average 3 years longer than the average American, and it’s not because NYC is a toxin free, stress free site – they have to move around a lot to get through life.
Standing takes about 25% more calories than sitting. Over a standard workday, a standing retail worker knocks off around 500 calories more than someone who sits at a desk (think about that before joining Weight Watchers.)
Bottom line – some forms of passive rest, in this case sitting, will help do you in before your time.
Why Is Sitting Bad For My Health?
There’s a simple answer – evolution. Though 21st century industrial society humans are very used to chairs, cars, offices, television sets and computer monitors, we did not evolve with these gizmos.
We evolved walking.
If you look at hunter-gatherer societies, which humans were for around 99% of our species lifespan, you witness walking machines. Hunter-gatherers today normally walk 12-14 hours a day.
They keep moving. Not like their cyborg imitating industrial socieity cousins whose young sit before videogames for hours and hours and hours.
Motion is lotion, as people with arthritis know. It also keeps you alive.
You Need to Change the Definition of Exercise
As I’ve argued in books like “The Power of Rest” and “Designed to Last,” our definition of “exercise” should include anything that involves voluntary muscle action – which can include activities like typing this article.
However, typing does little to allay the unhappy effects of sitting. Neither does sitting and yakking into a phone expend much energy.
Yet standing and yakking make a difference. So does strolling while talking on a cell phone. Or walking over to a work colleague. Or as researchers at Mayo Clinic have shown, hard core fidgeting burns calories.
So our definition of healthy exercise should include anything that keeps us moving – even strolling down to the refrigerator.
Ordinary activities can produce extraordinary results if you know how to use them.
Antidote 1 – Active Rest
Active rest can do a lot of things, besides keep you alive longer and provide life enchancing flow experiences. Active rest techniques that get you out of the chair include 1. Quick visits over to a work colleague rather than phoning her 2. Walking with friends at lunchtime 3. Spiritual rest techniques, like appreciating suchness 4. Walking to music. These techniques also can calm you during stress or power you up when you’re exhausted.
And there are many activities you can do standing rather than sitting. These include:
- Typing at a standing desk. Writing “The Power of Rest” this way was more fun, easier on my back, and far more rhythmic and dancelike than typing sitting down.
- Consider one of the treadmill desks put out by the folks at Mayo Clinic who study “non-exercise” physical activity so you can walk and work (many easily stroll at about half a mile an hour.)
- Walking business meetings often lead to very different discussions as people experience the health benefits of sunlight and, better still, walking in nature, which may markedly improve mood.
Other Reasons to Give Up Your Chair
Sitting has other problems. Many of us have a “scholar’s stoop” where we lean forward while walking (I’m certainly guilty.) Others cross our legs while sitting, or lean forward, or twist around in a chair. The results are exacerbated back pain, which already afflicts 80% of the total adult population; neck pain; and worsened balance and flexibility, a major problem as we age.
It’s time to look at human design and try to fit yourself to how you’re made. We’re built to move. We’re walking machines.
No, you’re not going to reverse industrial society norms which make us move like mollusks, not any time soon. But you can take action.
Active rest works. It can help keep us alive – and make us feel that much more alive.
So when you get into your chair, think of getting out of it, too, often, cyclically, and regularly. Your body will thank you. As will your brain.
And perhaps, so will your insurance company, silently, to itself. That is, if you still have health insurance.
If you don’t, you really have to get out of that chair.
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