Monday, May 17, 2010

Better Read This Standing Up

A few years ago, my daughter's PE teacher gave each of the kids a pedometer to wear on their waistbands, set to measure not how far one walked, but how many steps one took. As I recall, the idea was that if you managed roughly 10,000 steps in a day you would maintain your current level of cardiovascular fitness. They were told that the typical elementary school aged child should have no problem reaching this threshold, but that most adults would struggle to achieve 7,000.

One morning, she left the pedometer at home so I clipped it to myself and promptly forgot about it. After a fairly normal morning of preparing for class, then teaching, I remembered it again around noon. I was already at 12,000 steps and I hadn't even walked the dogs yet. I knew that I spent very little time sitting during my day -- crouching yes, and kneeling, and crawling -- but this result both surprised and pleased me.

I was reminded of this recently when I heard about these finding published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Apparently the simple act of sitting can be deadly. People who spend large portions of their days sitting, be it in a car, at a computer, or in school, suffer negative health effects regardless of how much exercise they get during other parts of their day. It seems that the human body has evolved over millions of years to move, and when we sit too long our bodies go into a kind of distress mode, shutting down metabolic processes, slowing the burning of calories, causing us to store fat.

According to this Women's Health article:
That's not all. The less you move, the less blood sugar your body uses; research shows that for every two hours spent on your backside per day, your chance of contracting diabetes goes up by 7 percent. Your risk for heart disease goes up, too, because enzymes that keep blood fats in check are inactive. You're also more prone to depression: With less blood flow, fewer feel-good hormones are circulating to your brain.

Sitting too much is also hell on your posture and spine, says Douglas Lentz, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the director of fitness and wellness for Summit Health in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. "When you sit all day, your hip flexors and hamstrings shorten and tighten, while the muscles that support your spine become weak and stiff," he says. It's no wonder that the incidence of chronic lower-back pain among women has increased threefold since the early 1990s. 
I'm sure this goes for men as well.

I'm happy to have a job that allows me to spend most of my day on my feet and I've been encouraging my wife to switch over to a standing desk at her office. I also see this as another good argument for schools to break away from the old chair and desk model.

And to finish off this little public service announcement, might I put in a good word for the simple act of walking. As a boy, I don't ever remember my father going out of his way to exercise, yet he has always been fit in spite of working most of his career as a civil engineer, the definition of a desk-bound job. That said, he rarely rides an elevator when he can take the stairs. When he runs errands, he makes a point of parking in the far corner of parking lots so he has to cover that extra ground. He has never hired a neighborhood kid to mow his lawn. Hiking is one of his favorite recreations.

I do occasionally play basketball in the name of efficiency, but when time is not of the essence, walking is also, by far, my favorite form of exercise, as well as mode of transportation. I once walked over 15 miles just to meet a friend for a drink. I never drive to a Seattle Mariners baseball game. I beat the traffic by walking the 8 miles from my home to the stadium. I love nothing more than setting out in the morning, spending an entire day on the move, covering the space between one end of my city to another, before finally sitting down to a huge dinner at a nice restaurant. Stuffed, I then take the bus home.

There is a lot of evidence that exercise is good for our physical and mental well-being. Everyone knows that. At the same time, I've never seen any evidence that attaining extreme fitness does anything extra to enhance our well-being (unless it's just all about looking good in a bathing suit). In fact, I know too many people whose exercise obsession functions like a true addiction, taking over every aspect of their lives. There is no study showing that Olympic athletes live longer than someone with a more normal, realistically attainable level of fitness.

Achieving fitness doesn't have to be an intimidating, heart-pounding, drenched in sweat endeavor involving special equipment and clothing. It can just be as simple as choosing to stand instead of sit or choosing the walk instead of drive. Exercise needn't be something separate from the rest of our lives. It should simply be part of our lives.

Our classroom contains chairs, of course, but the butts that spend the most time in them are the adults. We are born to move. We learn to sit. Time to learn from our kids.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Tom, good food for thought. I spent years chained to a desk for work and now that I'm home with my son that isn't the case. Toddlers don't slow down for anyone. I think I need to get a pedometer and see how I'm doing. I'm sure there is plenty of room for improvement over here.

Noah said...

awesomeness, Tom!
Let's get everyone on their feet and MOVING!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Tom. I have shared it on facebook and twitter. thanks, ~pj Harris

Unknown said...

Like the title. ;)
Maybe Jody's headstand over the back of the couch while watching tv is the way to go.

Lindsey said...

I don't tend to sit down for too long because I have a back injury from when I was a teenager, that makes sitting for too long rather painful, so thank you for reminding me of the silver lining to that cloud ;)

Unknown said...

I thought this was perfect. I read it this morning via my phone and I have been thinking about it all day! Thanks for sharing.

Play for Life said...

Okay, okay this morning I WILL work to kinder ... Whoa! Look at the time ... I better get a wriggle on!
Donna :) :)