“5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Can Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, with Dr. Turner Osler

Dr. William Seeds
Mar 25 · 10 min read

As a surgeon, one can only operate on one person at a time, so one can affect at most 5–10 thousand lives. But by reshaping our physical environment, one can improve millions of lives in a single stroke. It’s my hope that by bringing active sitting to the attention of the world we’ll be able to improve the health and ease of millions of people.


As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Turner Osler. Dr. Osler spent twenty-five years as an academic trauma surgeon and researcher and has over 300 peer-reviewed papers on his CV. But after receiving a master’s degree in biostatistics and a grant from the National Institute of Health in 2005 he traded the OR for full-time outcomes research. He became interested in the health problems created by our passive, hair centric lifestyle, and has spent the last few years studying “sitting disease” and ways to combat it.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?

I really came to “fitness and wellness” through the backdoor of “illness and death”. I spent my formative years in neurobiology (Princeton), medical school (Medical College of Virginia), residency (Columbia, Harvard) and fellowships (University of New Mexico). So, it was natural that I viewed the world through the lens of illness, injury, and, well, death. People who were well enough to complain about being unwell really weren’t a part of my surgical practice: gunshot/stab wounds, car crashes, burns, that sort of thing. It wasn’t until I exchanged the peripatetic life of a surgeon for the seated life of a statistical researcher that I developed back pain severe enough to pique my interest in just why so many people had back pain. Ultimately I found that our Western chair centric life was the source of not only back pain but a good deal of other misery as well. This seemed like a big enough problem to be worth the rest of my career, and I set out to change the way we all sit by upending the idea of what a chair is.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My first career as a trauma surgeon generated a lifetime of rollicking stories that can’t be told at the dinner table. My subsequent career as a researcher has much more stayed, but I’m afraid the stories are far less gripping. But sometimes research can have its rewards. For example, our research has found that while city mayors (I’m looking at you, Rudy) have been eager to take credit for the drop in homicides rates, these improvements weren’t actually due to anything done by the city government. Rather, upon closer inspection, we found that while homicide rates went down, the rate of gunshot wounds did not. So really the drop in homicide rates was due to the hard work of the EMTs, nurses and trauma teams that reduced the probability of a gunshot wound becoming a homicide. Those in government eager to take credit for this success after the fact perhaps didn’t realize the real cause, but they certainly weren’t shy about trumpeting decreasing homicide rates in their campaign literature.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

One of the first active chairs we designed looked like a low bench with a rocking mechanism hidden under the seat. We took it to a trade show and put it out where people could try sitting on it, and watched with growing dismay as hundreds of people streamed by showing no interest at all in our invention. Crushed, I finally asked someone what they thought of our chair, to which they replied: “Chair? I thought it was a planter!” Apparently no one could tell our chair was a chair. Note to self: if you want to make a chair you can do whatever you want, but if you want to sell a chair it should look at least a little like a chair.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

I have degrees in neurobiology, medicine, surgery, and statistics, and I spent a good deal of time taking bodies apart in the anatomy lab in medical school and putting them back together in the OR over a long career as a surgeon. But curiously, these experiences were really only preparatory to the real work of digesting the medical research on sitting disease, and talking to bodywork experts, office furniture designers, and most importantly, normal people who have to sit all day as a part of their work lives. Only by clearly understanding the mischief caused by passively sitting all day could we hope to design a solution that would undo the public health catastrophe of passive sitting.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am indebted to many mentors over a long career. But Dr. Susan Baker of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health really gave me the key early in my career, back in the 1990s. Sue was a towering figure in the battle to reduce deaths due to car crashes. She taught me that one couldn’t harrang, or cajole or even beg people to behave better; one had to redesign the world to make dangerous behavior impossible. Decades later I understood that the only chair that could reduce the harm of passive sitting would be a chair that made it impossible to sit passively, and it was this insight that led us to develop our Ariel chair.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

All physicians know that if they could only write a prescription for exercise, every patient would be given such a prescription at every office visit. And we’ve actually known about this for a very long time: Hypocratis observed that “Walking is man’s best medicine”. And yet somehow we struggle to get exercise to be a part of people’s lives.

I think this struggle comes in part because every act of exercise is an act of the will, and folks have just so much will power to go around. But, if you could make a single decision that would persist for days or months, well, that could be a game-changer. Think about this: if you only put healthful food in your fridge, well, you’re guaranteed to eat mostly healthy. This is just Sue Baker’s insight on a day to day scale: by making a single global, healthful choice we prevent a multitude of poor choices. In effect, by making poor choices more difficult we ensure better choices. A simple but powerful way to hack our behavior.

This approach can be used for almost any aspect of our lives: Want to eat better? Put only healthful food in your fridge. Want to exercise more? Sell your car and buy a bicycle. Want to move more at work? Trade-in your passive “ergonomic” chair for an active chair. In each case, a single decision cascades through days or years of behavior.

Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)

It turns out that even a little exercise can make a big difference in people’s health. There’s a place for sweating at the gym, of course, but just walking a mile or two a day returns as much or more health benefit in terms of serum lipids, insulin levels, and other biochemical markers that ensure longer, healthier lives. So, just because you can’t get to the gym (or don’t feel like it…), don’t despair: go for a walk and you’ll feel better.

It also turns out that passive sitting in “ergonomic” office chairs is one of the great culprits in reducing health and longevity. Worse, the damage was done by passive sitting for 8 hours a day simply isn’t undone by an hour or two of sweating at the gym; sitting passively in and of itself injuriously disrupts our biochemistry. So, finding ways to stay active while sitting at work can provide great health benefits. This can be as simple as getting up and walking around every half hour or getting a treadmill desk or an under desk exercise machine, or by swapping out your passive chair for a chair that allows for active sitting.

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?

Exercise improves one’s lipid profile, one’s insulin levels, one’s mood, one’s capacity for work, and one’s overall alertness. It’s amazing, really, but not surprising. It turns out that we humans are unique in our need for activity. Recent research shows that all our nearest relatives (chimps, bonobos, and gorillas) have surprisingly low activity levels in the wild. A typical day in the life of a chimp involves 10 hours/day of resting and grooming before knocking off for 10 hours of sleep each night. In their 4 “active” hours chimps walk about a mile and climb about 100 meters (equal to another mile of walking). Orangutans lead lives that are about as active, and gorillas do far less. In zoos, great apes are even less active but somehow stay lean (10% body fat for chimps) and healthy. By contrast, humans seem to need 10,000 steps (5 miles) of walking every day to stay healthy. So, long story short: almost everything about our human biochemistry requires exercise in order to work well. Interestingly, this exercise need not be intense; simply walking will do it.

For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?

1. Walking. 2. More walking. 3. That’s enough walking; no need to overdo it.

In my experience, many people begin an exercise regimen but stop because they get too sore afterwards. What ideas would you recommend to someone who plays sports or does heavy exercise to shorten the recovery time, and to prevent short term or long term injury?

Human physiology has been optimized over millions of years to recover as quickly as possible after exertion. It’s unlikely that some particular rub, potion or mattress will make much of a difference. But for me personally (no research involved) the key seems to take a nap and then do some gentle slow stretching..

There are so many different diets today. Can you share what kind of diet you follow? Which diet do you recommend to most of your clients?

Epidemiologic research confirms that vegetarians live longer than any other group saves one: pesco-vegetarians. Of course, one isn’t likely to follow a diet that one doesn’t enjoy. I’m fortunate that I love our family’s largely Mediterranean, pesco-vegetarian diet.

But my best advice is that, if you can, you follow Pollan’s three precepts:: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” By food, Pollan means stuff that your great-grandmother would recognize as food, not the modern highly refined stuff that won’t ever rot (no Twinkies!).

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

James Watson’s The Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965) was for me transformational: it was all going to be so simple. DNA was just a computer tape that produced all the proteins that made each living thing. By tweaking the DNA one could produce every organism, past, present, even future. Only the details remained to be worked out. Of course, this view was so profoundly oversimplified that it is simply wrong, but pushing back against this world view has reshaped my understanding of how life works for the last 50 years.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

As a surgeon, one can only operate on one person at a time, so one can affect at most 5–10 thousand lives. But by reshaping our physical environment, one can improve millions of lives in a single stroke. It’s my hope that by bringing active sitting to the attention of the world we’ll be able to improve the health and ease of millions of people.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Talking is learning; listening is teaching.” I love this insight that was given to me many years ago by a master teacher; unfortunately, I still have to relearn it every day, sometimes several times a day. It turns out that it’s almost always better to have folks explain their understanding of a topic to me; by listening carefully, and perhaps inserting a question or two, everybody learns more.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Jim Keane is the CEO of Steelcase, the largest manufacturer of office furniture in the world. I’d like to have a chance to pitch the importance of active sitting to him. He just might buy into the idea of “doing well by doing good.”

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

You can follow us @QOR360 on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, all that stuff.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Authority Magazine

Dr. William Seeds

Written by

Board-certified orthopedic surgeon and physician, with over 22 years of experience, specializing in all aspects of sports medicine and total joint treatments

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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