The Other 23
by Marcus Chapman
What has six legs and barely moves?
You, sitting in a chair.
Let’s not get all up in arms about the semantics of the amount of legs a person may or may not have or the style of chair. The point is, we sit too often for too long and it’s killing us.
A sedentary lifestyle is lived with little or irregular physical activity. A term for this type of person is a couch potato but the wording is a little misleading; we could do away with the couch part because a potato is just as active on the couch as it is on a racetrack.
I digress. We, as humans, were not meant to sit for as long as most of us do. We lead sedentary lives and we are discovering that the consequences are dire beyond a tingling buttocks or stiff neck. Sedentary lifestyles lead to hypokinetic diseases.
In a TED Talk, writer and public speaker Nilofer Merchant said a phrase that is quickly becoming the tag line in a movement to create awareness and eradicate this issue: “Sitting is the smoking of our generation.” The more we pay attention to our sitting habits, the more we are finding just how serious the problem of hypokinetic disease really is.
“Hypokinetic disease–‘Hypo’ meaning low and ‘kinetic’ meaning movement–it’s basically just low-movement disease.” Said Ernie Medina, Jr., DrPH, “This hypokinetic disease problem impacts everybody, exercisers and non-exercisers alike. The big thing it leads to is chronic inflammation. That’s really the big problem because chronic inflammation is at the heart of [non-communicable diseases such as] heart disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, and cancer.”
Dr. Medina is the Executive Director of the Center for Nutrition, Healthy Lifestyle and Disease Prevention in the Loma Linda University School of Public Health. He is making it his mission to eradicate hypokinetic disease and he’s starting with the school he works in.
After hearing one of his presentations, I become acutely aware of my sedentary habits. I’m 29 years old but my knees pop and snap when I get up from my chair. My adductor muscles on the inside of my thighs tighten when I rise from the couch. However, I play soccer once a week and basketball two to three times a week for about an hour each time. I do exercise, so why am I starting to feel like the clichéd old man that yelps, “My back!” Every time he stands up?
“Complaining of achy joints might be more of a sign of too much sitting or little physical activity as opposed to [soreness from] jogging or running,” notes Dr. Medina, “The joint of the knee is cartilage on cartilage. It’s one of the strongest and most frictionless materials. The cartilage gets its food through movement. The shock of the physical activity wears out the cartilage faster.”
If I sit for roughly 23 hours a day and then go for a vigorous run on the 24th hour, the sudden activity will shock my knees and joints. Consistent activity will keep the cartilage healthy.
The problem is that my daily routine basically consists of sitting. Sitting at my desk at work, sitting in the car, sitting at meetings, sitting down to eat, sitting to play video games, sitting to surf the internet, etc. Then, after a day of sitting, I finally stretch out my restless legs and lay down in bed. I’m a chronic sitter and I’m getting too cozy to quit.
“To reverse this, the recommendations are that you just need to move 1-2 minutes every hour,” says Dr. Medina. “The tough part is changing the culture, to actually get into the habit of standing or taking a movement break.”
How can we tell if we’ve been sitting for too long? Oxygen levels in the brain begin to drop after about 20 minutes of sitting, some of us get restless legs, and of course the big one, back pain. Despite the best chairs, lower back pain is probably the number one complaint of chronic sitting. Dr. Medina says that when people switched to standing, their back pain went away. He adds, “I find I do better work when I’m standing than when I’m sitting.”
Since I’ve learned about hypokinetic disease I have bought a standing desk for my house, gotten rid of my video game console and taken the time to notice all the little aches and pains from sitting down for too long. Now the tough part is actually getting into the habit of taking shorter but more frequent breaks and just standing. For most of us it’s a complete culture change that is more likely to happen at the proverbial tortoise’s pace.
“A lot of people think that the alternative to sitting is a treadmill desk,” says Dr. Medina, “which is more on the opposite side.”
It’s true; I’d rather have the effortless speed and agility of the hare, but if that could be combined with the wise tortoise’s determination and discipline, well then that would be something to stand for. As Dr. Medina puts it, “We don’t need to start with doing exercise at work, simply standing is progress enough.”