fitness · health

Stand up, get out of that chair, and get moving

Sitting is the new smoking. I’m sure by now you’ve heard that. And as someone who reads and writes professionally, activities traditionally done while seated, this has me worried. One theme in two of the books about fitness I’ve read recently, Gretchen Reynolds’ The First Twenty Minutes and A.J. Jacob’s Drop Dead Healthy–is that sitting is killing us.

And even getting physical activity each day, it turns out, isn’t enough to offset the risk of sitting. I’ve read these studies about the dangers of inactivity before and thought I didn’t have to worry. After all, I’m one of the most active people I know. I bike to work, I play soccer, I do Aikido, etc etc. But no.  It turns out that regular exercise can’t offset the metabolic death that kicks in from sitting, even just after 20 minutes of sitting. Reynolds now gets up from her desk every twenty minutes and runs around. Jacobs was so convinced of the evidence against sitting that he now writes at a treadmill desk–that’s how he wrote the fitness book–and he literally ‘runs’ his errands.

My preferred mode of being–in the past–was to physically exhaust myself through exercise and then with the body calm and the mind wide awake turn to my academic work. I felt good about the hours at the desk because it was usually preceded by one to two hours of intense exercise–hill repeats, intervals on the track, etc. I do my best writing that way: physically exhausted, mentally charged up and alert. I liked it because it allowed me to sit still. Otherwise, I fidget and get up and wander around.  It turns out that all that fidgeting is a a good thing, fitness wise.

So what to do? Well, at home I’m experimenting with a standing desk. See photo below. It’s still very much a work in progress but I like it a lot. I waste less time at the computer. When I’m there, I work. I stand on a pad (like people who work at cash registers) and I have a yoga block to shift my posture around occasionally. My back also feels a lot better. I’ve had physio and posture analysis done after back pain and it turns out that for a professional sitter, my sitting sucks. The good news is that I have excellent standing, walking, running, biking posture. I think maybe I was meant to be something other than a professor of philosophy. The only challenge with my standing desk is after runs and bike rides when I find myself wanting to sit but then I take my lap top to the sofa for awhile and that works too.  I’m not sure what to do at the university as I like to sit when I chat with students. I’m still trying to decide about that. In an ideal world I’d have an adjustable height desk but I suspect they are out of the university’s budget. I’ll report back.

Read more here:

A.J. Jacobs, Sitting is Terrible for Your Health

Gretchen Reynolds: Get Up. Get Out. Don’t Sit.

Andre Picard: Why the sedentary life is killing us

14 thoughts on “Stand up, get out of that chair, and get moving

  1. Interesting, but frightening for someone who also has a desk job! How often does one need to “move around” – and what intensity does the moving around need to be – in order to offset this?

    Also – maybe you could go on walks with your students while you chat?

  2. I “walk and talk’ with students some of the time, Great suggestion, though not always often practical. I usually offer to buy coffee and then we at least walk to the coffee shop. It seems you need to move around every 20 minutes. I sometimes use those breaks for walks to get mail. When I’m super keen I do air squats/push ups etc in my office.

    What shocked me was that exercise didn’t seem to offset the risk. Here’s more:

    “Researchers have linked sitting for prolonged periods with a number of health problems and premature death from cardiovascular disease,” Dr James Levine wrote on the Mayo Clinic website.

    “In one study, adults who spent more than four hours a day sitting in front of the television had an 80 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease compared with adults who spent less than two hours a day in front of the TV. This risk was independent of other risk factors such as smoking or diet.”

    The solution, Levine said, is not extra gym time, which doesn’t seem to offset the risk.

    “Rather, the solution seems to be less sitting and more moving,” he wrote. “Simply by standing, you burn three times as many calories as you do sitting. Muscle contractions, including the ones required for standing, seem to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars. When you sit down, muscle contractions cease and these processes stall.”

    1. Wow – 80% increased risk? That’s pretty scary, and i had no idea. I will have to find ways to get up and move much more often.

  3. My solution was the FitDesk. It’s a stationary bike rigged so that you can work on a laptop while you ride. I started slow and am up to as much as an hour and a half a day. Sometimes while working I forget I’m on it and go over my goal on time.

  4. nice! If you ever find that standing gets annoying or you feel “antsy” I’d try a treadmill desk. (Although it looks like you’d need to modify your current setup in order to accommodate one.) But I tried standing vs walking, and even though it uses more energy, I felt that walking was more natural and actually easier over longer periods of time. I kind of documented my transition and progress here if anyone’s interested:

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