The Stillness Epidemic — Exercise is NOT the Answer!!!
You’ve probably heard and seen a lot of hype about sitting being terrible for you or being linked to all kinds of disease and mortality over the past few years. There’s been a recent explosion of studies supporting these ideas and the correlations are overwhelming. This is truly alarming considering most of us spend the majority of our days “killing ourselves” according to this research, but is sitting really the causative issue here?
The supportive research is staggering. One study showed that even in adults who regularly exercise, prolonged sitting periods were linked with compromised metabolic health and increased premature mortality risk. Another study on over 17,000 Canadians from ages 18–90 demonstrated an increased risk for poor cardiovascular health and increased mortality rate from all other causes linked to amount of time spent sitting despite various levels of exercise.
We’ve been aware of the link between regular physical activity and a decreased risk of cardiovascular and other issues for a much longer period of time, but only recently are we discovering how this fails to mitigate the risk of sedentary lifestyles. A study in the diabetes journals examined the relation between not just sitting, but sedentary life in general on mortality, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome risk factors, and obesity. The results strongly suggested a significant direct relationship between sedentary lifestyles and each of these medical concerns.
“But I’m fit and I exercise regularly. I’m in great shape.
Unfortunately, not good enough. The answer to sedentary living is not exercise! Most of us would consider exercising one hour a day, seven days a week, a solid exercise program of an active individual, but what about the other 23 hours of the day? After all, eating a very healthy breakfast doesn’t mean that we can eat all the junk we want for the rest of the day and still be healthy.
This ideal exercise standard of one hour a day comes to about 4% of the time in our lives. Our bodies are constantly adapting to the environment we expose them to, so if we expose them to healthy activity 4% of the time with the other 96% spent sitting or laying mostly still at work, school, the movies, home on the couch, or in the car/bus/train/plain between locations, our bodies are going to adapt towards a lack of movement! We will get better at sitting and not moving! From a physiological standpoint, movement is life, so it’s not so surprising that adapting away from it is linked to all these issues and increased mortality.
THE ISSUES WITH TYPICAL “SOLUTIONS”
I get frequent questions about the best way to mitigate back pain from sitting or what exercise program is the best to fix ailments associated with sedentary lifestyles. A more ergonomic chair, a fitter body, a standing desk, greater flexibility…these will only get you so far, if anywhere at all.
Ergonomics. OSHA defines ergonomic as “fitting a job to a person — — helps lessen muscle fatigue, increases productivity and reduces the number and severity of work-related MSDs.” Google’s online dictionary defines it as “the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment.” The common assumption with ergonomics is that it’s the healthiest way to positions bodies, but in reality the study of ergonomics serves an entirely different purpose. The goal is to provide the best way to keep an individual coming back to work to sit still for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week until retirement despite the overall effect on your health. So next time you search for the most ergonomic chair for your office, just be aware that means absolutely nothing about health and wellness.
Corrective Exercise. Despite being an expert on biomechanics and corrective exercises, Katy Bowman has never issued a set of corrective exercises for prolonged sitting. This is because she understands the biomechanical effect of any prolonged stillness on cardiovascular and joint health. Constant and continuous use of any position will cause repetitive turbulent flow of blood in certain regions that ultimately leads to the build up of plaque in our bloodstreams, cellular damage, and self-induced joint rigidity. Exercise of any kind cannot undo the cellular damage that is done by the repetitive positioning, and this is why the 4% cannot mitigate the 96%.
Standing Desks. Standing desks were the initial solution to the “sitting is the new smoking” panic, but they also have their limitations. Getting out of this constant sitting position has a number of benefits and mitigates many risk factors, but when done for long periods of time as a substitute for sitting, standing is just another still position with its own risk factors. So unless your standing desk enables you to move more frequently and change positions regularly, it does not solve the problem.
SO WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO THEN? I DON’T HAVE ALL DAY TO DEDICATE TO EXERCISE.
Neither do I, and neither do most of us, but again, exercise in the typical sense is not the answer. Simply breaking up the sedentary periods with some natural movement and repositioning yourself frequently go a long way towards mitigating all of the issues associated with sitting and sedentary lifestyles. Here are a simple things you can do to mitigate your risks:
1. WORK DYNAMICALLY. Vary your position. Frequent repositioning will constantly change the load from gravity on all of your joints and have significant internal (bloodstream, airways, pressures) and external effects. A good way to do this is to sit on the floor if you can. Yes, you will get uncomfortable after a period of time, but that’s the point. You will not have to consciously remember to change positions because you will do so naturally and reap all the benefits.
2. CHOOSE MOVEMENT. Find ways to include movement naturally throughout your day. Much of the time we spend sitting still can be replaced with natural, nutritious movement with the benefit of health, energy, concentration, and often finances as well. Find your own ways to capitalize on all the Movement Opportunities in your life.
3. STRETCH. Getting in the habit of stretching throughout the day is another great way to break up the sedentary moments, and it actually increases blood flow to those muscles as well. In most positions you find yourself in, there will be muscles that are held in either shortened or elongated positions, and over time they will adapt to these lengths. By stretching your muscles, especially the shortened and tight ones, you maintain their ability to move through their ranges of motion and pull blood flow to them (which yields health blood pressure and cardiovascular health). You may also reap benefits of joint health and better alignment.
4. EXERCISE. Yes, I said exercise. Exercise in itself is not bad and is shown to be linked to reduced risk for most chronic diseases. It is not THE solution to sedentary living because it alone cannot fix everything, but it’s still incredibly beneficial. The issue is when exercise is done poorly or as a mitigation to an overwhelmingly sedentary lifestyle. It is important to stay active and find your own enjoyable ways to get your moderate to vigorous levels of activity in that work for you. Just don’t assume that exercise alone checks the box on movement in your life.
The evidence is all around us. It’s in the unfortunate elderly women walking down the street with her back hunched over and one hand on her aching spine. It’s in the sad old man who has lost the ability to walk and is stuck in a wheel chair for the rest of his life. Old age did not bend her spine forwards and calcify it or put him in that position. Repetitive positioning did. We are not anatomically designed to sit (chairs are a very recent invention in the grand scheme of our development) or to lean forward with our spine for the majority of the time, but we are designed to adapt to our environment. We are how we move! So if we want to be able to get up and down off the floor, walk, hang, squat, twist, turn, stand up straight, and brachiate into our later years, we need to do all of that regularly and break up the excessive stillness that plagues our lifestyles.