While on book tour for Fight Fat after Forty, I was getting ready to be interviewed by an NPR station in the Carolina’s when the anchor asked me an interesting question: “Hey, congratulations on your book. So, how many pounds did it cost you?” Surprised, I asked him what he meant. “Well, I’m a writer as well. For every book, I spend months sitting down hammering away on my computer and I always seem to gain weight. Some of it’s just stress eating, but a load of it is sitting on my rear. Most of my books are worth about a 15 pound weight gain. It’s a real pain to work it off once the book is done.“
I definitely related to the stress and sitting. But curiously, I had unintentionally prevented weight gain due to my natural state of get-up-and-go. Knowing I’d be writing for hours, I followed two rules. The first was to start and end the day with a walk and/or run. This allowed me to launch the day feeling refreshed and energized, and finish the day rejuvenated. The second was to practice my self-made “assume the vertical for 5 minutes every hour while writing” rule. I set an alarm and every hour for five minutes I get up and walk around and stretch. It certainly helps my thinking while keeping me sane while I spend countless hours writing and rewriting manuscript. I shared this with the NPR anchor and he promised to give it a spin for his next book.
This got me thinking about the issue of sitting. I’m a member of a special group that’s writing a National Physical Activity Plan for America. We’re examining what level of activity is healthy and promotes wellness while preventing disease. Sedentary behavior is front and center. As it turns out, when you make sitting a second career, there are indeed health consequences.
Researchers who investigate the science of sitting are sending out a wake-up call. For example, a recent study published in Circulation noted that after scientists followed 8,800 Australians for 6 years, they discovered that every hour of TV watching (while sitting) was associated with an 18% increase in deaths by heart disease, and an 11% increase in deaths overall. Those folks who watched TV at least 4 hours every day were 80% more likely to die of heart disease, compared to those who watched less than 2 hours per day. Since Americans watch an average of 5 hours of TV per day, we’re in trouble. Kind of takes the bite out of those day long marathons of House!
In another study of 17,000 Canadian adults, scientists found that people who spent excessive time sitting for any reason were more likely to die of heart disease within 12 years. But these results come with a twist. It didn’t matter if you were slender or that you exercised regularly. In other words, if you’re hitting the gym or taking that walk once a day or twice on weekends and then spend the rest of your life sitting, you’re still increasing your risk for heart disease. The researchers concluded that sitting too much was not the same as not getting enough exercise. There seems to be preventive power in spending more time up and active every day of your life.
Meanwhile, in another study, when American researchers placed electrodes on people’s bodies while they were engaged in prolonged sitting, they noted that the muscles stop moving, giving the scary appearance of what would look like a brain’s flat line. In related research, rats were studied after prolonged bouts of sitting, and scientists discovered a significant decline in a special enzyme that decreases the amount of fat circulating in the bloodstream. This suggests that in people who sit too much, fat is more likely to get packed into arteries, thus increasing the risk for heart disease.
OK, so what’s the bottom line here? Here’s my take on this new science. In many cases, those people who tend to sit in front of the tube for at least 4-5 hours per day also tend to be less active and over-eat, especially processed foods. There may also be mental components, such as depression, in play that further contribute to shorter life spans. Therefore, it’s no surprise that there’s an increased risk for heart disease, as any one of these lifestyle behavior components can significantly contribute to health problems.
Well, how much sitting should you do? Researchers don’t know the answer to this question as yet. What we do know is that, like a fine racing car, the human body was not meant to sit for prolonged periods of time. You know how you feel when you’ve been glued to your computer for hours on end? Your body becomes achy and you’re almost pushed to get up and move. One visitation to the gym on the weekend doesn’t, as we now know, neutralize the health consequences of all of this sitting time.
Since national experts haven’t provided guidelines yet, I’ve gone ahead and created some of my own.
- Keep it movin’. Do you know a Nervous Nellie or Ned in your life? Do you recall what they look like? They’re usually up and moving and they tend to be reed thin. Nellie and Ned aren’t running marathons, but their activities add up over time, like pennies in a piggy bank. Researchers have found that you can burn up to an extra 350-500 calories per day by accruing a whole host of lifestyle aerobic (walking) and strength (hauling fire wood, composting, carrying groceries) type activities in 24 hours. And this is gym free living. The National Institutes of Aging notes that you can prevent disease by simply increasing these “activities of daily living”. Heck, just get up and move more.
- 5 minutes of every hour, assume the vertical. So much of our professional and personal lives are spent sitting. It’s so easy to lose track of time. With the advent of the computer, the tube and countless other high tech toys, we’re clocking serious chair time. That’s why I created this little rule. Set your alarm (a kitchen timer works) and just aim to get up for at least 5 mins every hour and move. Walk around, stretch, run in place, clean a little more of that closet, or hit some yoga poses (my faves include sun salutation and warrior pose). The key is to try not to let 60 minutes go by without gettin’ vertical.
- Try a Walk ‘n Talk. Years ago, I began walking with many of my patients during their appointment. It was a revelation to see how much walking outdoors in the fresh air affected people’s ability to open up and speak about the challenges in their lives. Not only was it great aerobic exercise, but it was enjoyable (elevated mood) and productive. Next time you want to meet up with a friend or colleague, why not schedule a walk ‘n talk? This also includes talking on the phone. Don’t just sit there. Get up and move while you’re yapping away. Works like a charm.
- Movin’ and Tubin’. Hey, look I like my Law and Order episodes as much as the next person. Sometimes I’ll watch them while I’m sitting. And, I may get up to do other things during the commercials. Or, I’ll tape the show and play it back while I’m hitting my elliptical. That way I can zip through the commercials and spend less time on the tube for an optimal win win- staying active and vertical while enjoying the tube.
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