Solving Sitting: A Guide to Optimizing Your Movement for Health, Longevity, & Performance
Here’s how to layer the right (and surprisingly easy) habits that ensure you stay agile as you age.
Regular movement has real benefits for your health, longevity, and performance. Surprisingly, though, it isn’t about how much you exercise!
Let’s say you spend six to eight hours a day sitting at your office job. It’s more effective to simply stand up and sit back down often throughout your day than to do an hour-long workout after your shift.
Don’t get me wrong—exercise is great, and it has a ton of unique benefits, but you don’t have to be a gym-rat to get the advantages of consistent movement.
In this guide, I’m going to take you on a journey to understand how our bodies behave optimally when experiencing a variety of postures. We’ll get into the science, especially the NASA research of Dr. Joan Vernikos, of how our bodies interact with gravity at the cellular level and how lack of movement accelerates the aging process.
Then we’ll jump right into a guide for optimizing your movement habits to gain an edge. For those who also want to get more fit, I have a training style for you that will both increase your daily movement and make you strong. Finally, in the last section, we’ll address the role of fascia and ways to improve mobility.
In short, this is the ultimate guide to solving the problem of sitting and living an optimized life through the power of movement.
Also, for convenience, here is a clickable table of contents. (The links below work if you’re reading in a browser, but not if you’re reading in the app.)
A Brief History of Sitting
Technology and Movement After World War II
NASA, the Gravity Link, and Dr. Joan Vernikos
Get Up, Sit Down, Rinse, Wash, and Repeat
Action Step 1: Set a Timer
Grease the Groove
Action Step 2: Grease the Groove Squats
Fascia and Mobility
Action Step 3: Start a Mobility Program
A Brief History of Sitting
Before the last 200 to 300 years, we moved a lot more and sat far less. Furthermore, the nature of our sitting promoted better posture and mobility. Even in Europe, for all its images of kings and noblemen sitting on their thrones, chairs were considered a luxury item, and the average person sat on the floor.
For most of human history, sitting only occurred in the form of squatting or getting cross-legged on the ground. The first benches appeared in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome. These were often low to the ground and did not offer armrests or backs. This design not only demanded greater effort from sitters but required a more erect posture and improved hip mobility.
Not until the seventeenth century did chairs become commonplace in the West. Before then, they were scarce, symbolizing wealth and class. Even when they did emerge in greater numbers, they had shorter legs and again kept sitters’ bodies in a more squat-like position.
Full-force manufacturing of chairs began in the year 1818 as the project of Lambert Hitchcock, who took as his slogan “Chairs for everybody.” Yet in much of the developing world and the East, people still sit on the ground, even to this day.
The Japanese, for example, still usually squat or kneel on the ground and even sleep on floor mats rather than beds. They pretty much have to perform a deep squat or lunge every time they sit down, get out of bed, or kneel, as opposed to societies with tall chairs, where people typically just fall back onto the chair or need to only slightly bend their knees to sit down.
In the early 1900s, a large number of Okinawans, who are considered a long-living “blue-zone” people today, moved to Brazil, where they adopted more Western dietary and movement practices. Later studies showed that these people lived 17 years fewer on average than their genetically identical counterparts who had stayed in Japan. Even in Okinawa, Vernikos points out, those under the age of 50 who live near U.S. military bases (which sport an abundance of fast food outlets) have the worst mortality, obesity, and heart disease rates in Japan.
Does correlation mean causation? Not always. There are multiple factors, including diet, on which Western and Eastern culture and lifestyle differ. However, when combined with data from NASA and other sources, I believe that we can conclude that sedentary lifestyle is a major component of these findings.
Technology and Movement After World War II
Progress and technology are powerful forces that have been major themes since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution about 200 years ago. Chairs became more prevalent around the same time that we started building machines.
After World War II, a large number of technologies emerged to make our lives easier and leverage our ability to work long hours. It became common to sit in workplaces, with even manual labor becoming less intensive than it once was. Farmers still perform back-breaking work compared to a desk job, but they also ride around on machines that can turn whole fields into product in a day compared to the weeks that it used to take.
Don’t get me wrong—these advances in technology have made life pretty darn amazing. But at the same time, we don’t move around nearly as much as we used to. Research on this subject has discovered some pretty important things regarding movement and its role in human health. Let’s take a look.
NASA, the Gravity Link, and Dr. Joan Vernikos
To understand the importance of movement, we are going to dive into the work of Dr. Joan Vernikos. Dr. Vernikos was originally hired by NASA in 1964 for her comprehensive research on stress and later became a pioneer in research on the way human physiology interacts with gravity. In 2000, she retired from NASA after years as the agency’s director of life sciences.
Today, she continues to write, speak on the topics of movement for health and aging, and teach at Taksha University, where she is also a board member of the Taksha Institute for Space, Health and Aging. A full curriculum vitae of her work can be found here.
What Vernikos discovered over the course of her career that is so important is that stagnation produces severe negative health consequences in the human body, and this stagnation is not restricted to zero-gravity environments like space but extends to any lack of movement, such as sitting, standing, or laying down for long periods of time without changing position.
The stagnation that results from the microgravity of space results in rapid aging—specifically, a tenfold increase in the rate of the processes associated with aging. On Earth, head-down bed rest (HDBR) studies are used to simulate this environment for study. What they have found is that the cardiovascular changes experienced in HDBR studies are identical to those experienced in space, with further effects including changes in bone density, muscle stiffness, circadian rhythm disruption, loss of weight and muscle mass, decreased insulin sensitivity, inhibited calcium absorption, and more.
Similarly, an observational study performed by the Cooper Clinic in Dallas tracked the correlation between sitting and increased risk of mortality. It found that out of 7,700 men, those who spent over 10 hours per week driving in a car or had 23 hours of combined sedentary behavior experienced 82 and 64 percent increases, respectively, in their risk of death by cardiovascular disease.
Here’s where things get really interesting. Exercise does not appear to counteract the negative effects of sitting. A large review by Oxford examining the relationship between sedentary lifestyle and cancer in 70,000 cancer cases found that sitting was associated with a 24 percent increase in the risk of colon cancer, a 32 percent increase in the risk of endometrial cancer, and a 21 percent increase in the risk of lung cancer.
In the words of the researchers:
“Adjustment for physical activity did not affect the positive association between sedentary behavior and cancer. This indicates that the increased risk of cancer seen in individuals with prolonged time spent sedentary is not explained by the mere absence of physical activity in those persons.”
This is supported by evidence (in several studies) that TV viewing time is related to increased risk of mortality even in active individuals. The negative effects of stagnation do not appear to be related to total physical activity level.
So what’s the solution? Well, let’s get back to NASA and Dr. Vernikos.
In another NASA study, three groups of men were exposed to head-down bed rest. One group stayed in the bed-rest position all day, while another walked for 15 minutes every hour, for a total of four hours of walking per day. The third group got up and walked for 15 minutes every hour, for a total of two hours of activity a day.
The researchers found that the group that walked four total hours per day saw no decreases in post-HDBR orthostatic tolerance, and the two-hour group saw these decreases partially offset.
This means that simply walking and thereby breaking the pattern of stagnation consistently throughout the day reduces the health risks of prolonged bed rest and stagnation in a way that one hour of intent exercise does not.
Similarly, NASA observed that astronauts who exercised throughout the day in space returned in better physiological condition than those who trained for two to four hours all at once. A similar effect was observed in those who performed work outside of their spacecraft, which often involved difficult work in special suits for an entire day.
Get up, Sit Down, Rinse, Wash, and Repeat
To combat the effects of sitting, stand up. Dr. Vernikos found that the most effective method for recovering from or preventing the negative effects of stagnation is to simply stand up often. Specifically, she recommends standing up from a sitting position every 30 minutes, or approximately 32 times per day. As she explains it:
“The change in posture triggers the brain balance and vestibular systems, and causes redistribution of blood throughout the body. This in turn stimulates blood pressure sensors in the heart and neck to maintain healthy blood supply to the brain as you stand.”
Again, it does not appear that the success of standing is due to exercise. The act of standing up only uses approximately 12 calories. Furthermore, most forms of exercise put the body in a state of burning sugar for fuel, whereas this low-level activity burns fat. Instead, the importance of the activity lies in the consistent changing of posture throughout the entire day.
In fact, the only single-entity exercise Vernikos and other NASA scientists found to be effective for combating stagnation was extremely high-intensity exercise. However, these protective effects only lasted for 24 hours, and it is possible that doing this form of high-intensity exercise daily could eventually have adverse effects.
And that may be a good thing! Sure, I know many of you reading this already have a gym routine, but many people don’t. I love working out, but I talk to people all the time who just want to be healthy, and getting into working out can be a long, complex, and intimidating process.
Exercise can be beneficial, to be sure, but it does not solve the foundational health problems that come from stagnation. Think of it this way: if you optimize your posture and movement and make sure to stand up or change your body position once every 20 minutes, you may need to add some exercise to your day to reach maximal health. However, if you don’t change your posture and optimize your movement but exercise daily, you’re still missing out on a major component of healthy living that is affecting you regardless of your gym routine.
Action Step 1: Set a Timer
Time to act. Optimize your movement and solve the problem of sitting by setting a timer on your phone for 20 or 30 minutes. Every time it goes off, stand up, reset the timer, and sit back down. You may find this distracting initially, but it should eventually become natural, and soon you won’t even need the timer.
Personally, I spend a few days at the beginning of every month using a timer in order to reset my movement habits, and then I go on instinct the rest of the time.
I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how much better you feel on a daily basis, and whatever distractions are associated with the timer should quickly be overshadowed by your increased energy and focus.
There is more you can do to optimize your movement and boost your health to exponential levels, but this habit is our base: Stand up 32 times throughout a day of sitting by using a timer every 20 or 30 minutes. Just stand up and then sit back down.
This is our foundation. From here we’ll move into some ways you can combine exercise with your movement routine, allowing you to reap the benefits of movement and strength training simultaneously.
Grease the Groove
Pavel Tsatsouline is a Russian strength coach who was once in charge of getting Spetsnaz, Russia’s premiere special forces military group, fit, strong, and ready. He is also credited with introducing the kettlebell to the West, and his training methods have stood the tests of trial and time. Most importantly for us, however, is that his most famous training methodology, called “Grease the Groove” training, happens to fit particularly well into our model of movement throughout the day.
You see, Grease the Groove training involves taking a particular exercise—let’s say pull-ups—and doing sets every 20 to 30 minutes throughout the day. Sound familiar?
You can kill two birds with one stone: every 30 minutes, you can change your posture and participate in one of the most effective strength training programs in the world.
Of course, if you’re not interested in exercising all day long, you can definitely just stick to standing up every 30 minutes, but I encourage you to consider this program. If done correctly, you shouldn’t break a sweat doing Grease the Groove, but you should see your strength skyrocket.
Grease the Groove relies on training at low weight levels. You should be able to perform close to 50 reps at whatever weight you are using. You won’t be doing 50 reps every set—much closer to 15 reps—but for most exercises in Grease the Groove, your max reps should be near 50. If you follow this program, you shouldn’t become fatigued or sore, despite doing 15 to 20 sets per day.
You’ll also only perform one exercise, but you’ll do it all day long. For example, you might be working on your pull-ups using Grease the Groove. To do this, you’d do a set of pull-ups every 20 to 30 minutes. You wouldn’t do any other exercises, just pull-ups.
Here’s the thing: with this training, you’re trying not to break down muscle, but to practice the skill of strength.
Low weight, low effort, and stop before you get sore. Does it sound a little too good to be true? Don’t worry, this isn’t just some program I’m suggesting because it helps break stagnation. Grease the Groove is one of the most popular strength training programs on the planet.
For a quick example of how effective Grease the Groove can be, let’s take a look at an old man, Pavel’s then-75-year-old father. Vladimir Tsatsouline used his son’s program to go from a 1 pull-up rep max to over 20. He also set an American record in the deadlift, lifting 407 lbs at a body weight of 193 lbs, without a weight belt, after only five years of total lifetime experience with a barbell (and at age 75.)
Interested? I sure hope so. Grease the Groove is a topic all to itself, and while I strongly recommend it, we don’t have time to hash out all the details in this guide. Thankfully, however, fellow Better Humans writer Coach John Fawkes has written an extensive guide about this training method with everything you’ll need to get started. You can find his wonderful article here.
Action Step 2: Grease the Groove Squats
Scientists have discovered that greater leg strength in men is correlated with better longevity and lower risk of mortality at earlier ages. To combine this with our optimized movement and Grease the Groove training, instead of merely standing every 20 to 30 minutes, I’d like you to do some squats.
At the low end, do 5 air squats every 20 to 30 minutes. This will add a little bit of Grease the Groove to your habit of optimized movement and will promote the benefits of leg strength.
If you want to get more advanced, find your max reps for air squats, lunges, or weighted air squats or lunges. For example, you might do air squats until failure and find that your maximum is 50 squats.
Now start doing sets of 15 to 20 squats every 20 to 30 minutes. If you want to keep things simple and do five rep sets, then add weights. Find out how much weight you need to carry for a maximum rep set of 15 to 20 reps. Now do five reps at that weight every 20 to 30 minutes. If you start getting fatigued or excessively sore, lower your weight or reps.
As far as weights, I suggest dumbbells held by your sides for lunges or held up by your shoulders in a “clean” position for squats. Kettlebells are great for squats too because you can hold them either by the bell or handle in a “goblet” position.
Do you lack range of motion in the knees? No worries! Use your chair and simply squat by getting back into your chair and then standing back up. This isn’t about becoming a gym-rat or an exercise enthusiast (though it’s okay if that happens too!).
Personally, I find this sort of Grease the Groove training to be easier than just standing up every 30 minutes. I feel more energized, and it’s awesome noticing my body get stronger as the days progress.
Fascia and Mobility
Ok, we’re done with the overview of movement. But the link between fascia and mobility is a hugely important topic that is also worth exploring.
Fascia may be one of the most important yet least understood parts of human anatomy. Fascia is a layer of connective tissue made up of bands of collagen that connect every internal structure in the body. Basically, it’s a web that connects your head to your toes, as well as your organs, bones, and every internal structure in your body. There aren’t multiple fascia in your body; it’s literally all one structure.
Furthermore, fascia is able to be tense but malleable. Its balance between tension and elasticity is what allows our muscles to operate smoothly and quickly, but it can also restrict movement if we have tightness.
Dr. Thomas W. Findley provides a great exercise you can do to understand the pervasiveness of fascia:
“ Sit in your chair with your knees bent and dorsiflex your ankle [bend it upward]. Now stand up and do the same thing. It does not move as far — and we know why. The gastrocnemius extends across both the ankle and the knee.
Now take that leg and with the knee straight, put it on the table in front of you. The foot moves less. Now bend your trunk forward. Even less motion.
Next, drop your head. Now you can really feel tightness in your calf. This demonstrates just one simple fascial connection, the back-line, but the fascial connections throughout the body are far, far more intricate.”
Since fascia connects every part of our body to every other part, tension in the fascia in one area can create imbalances elsewhere. A knee injury can affect your shoulders, for example, and vice versa.
Though research on this subject is still needed, some believe that fascia may even be involved in processes related to trauma and memory. One reported experience of people who undergo myofascial release therapy, which involves releasing tension from the fascia with massage, is the release of old, traumatic memories that subjects can then ease or forget.
There are a ton of ways you can begin to release tension from your fascia, including mobility work, Rolfing, foam rolling, and so on. For those who want to explore this area in depth, I recommend starting a mobility or fascia-release program on top of your new movement habits. Practitioners generally believe that it takes six months for the most malleable fascia tissues to begin to change and up to two years for the toughest, so consistency is more important than intensity.
Considering that most people, even athletes, don’t do consistent mobility work, your body is likely carrying tension that might be the culprit behind recurring injuries, back, neck, or knee pain, ankle mobility problems, and even poor circulation.
Action Step 3: Start a Mobility Program
Getting into a regular mobility program can release you from stubborn, long-standing injuries, relieve stress, and protect your health. However, results take consistency, so I recommend starting a premade program rather than trying to learn about all this stuff on your own.
MobilityWOD is the creation of Dr. Kelly Starrett, the most famous mobility coach in the Crossfit world. Author of the book Becoming a Supple Leopard, his work has been integrated into one of the most intense sports on the planet in order to keep athletes fit and mobile throughout not only their career, but their lives.
Mobility WOD is his online program, and it is the best place I know for getting mobile AND understanding mobility. When I first wrote this article (It has been updated) I used Gymnastic Bodies for my mobility work.
Since then, I’ve read Kelly Starrett’s Book: How To Become a Supple Leopard, and it has completely changed my life.
You don’t have to read a textbook to get the same benefits (though it is a phenomenal tool.)
Instead, you can simply sign up for Kelly and his wife Juliet’s program for $9.99 a month at mobilitywod.com
Furthermore, mobilityWOD also offers powerful certification and instructions courses that are recognized world wide. If you are a fitness professional, these courses are one of the most powerful things you can do for your resume and career.
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When I originally wrote this article, Gymnastic Bodies was my personal mobility program. Since then, I’ve moved on to using MobilityWOD for my mobility, however, I still use Gymnastic Bodies for additional work and for amazing functional strength training.
This program is an online course created by Coach Christopher Sommer which aims to get adults extremely strong and mobile using gymnastic strength training.
Coach Sommer trains athletes for the U.S. Olympic gymnastic team and years back began sharing his knowledge with adults. He noticed that compared to gymnasts, even the best adult athletes in other sports have serious deficits in their mobility. As Coach Sommer says, it’s not enough to be strong or to be flexible. You need to be both.
This is also a phenomenal program for people who are new to working out, as it mainly focuses on mobility in the beginning and progresses slowly into more advanced strength training.
Gymnastic Bodies can, quite simply, make you into both the fittest version of yourself ever and the most mobile and healthy. It costs $30 a month, so it’s about 3 times more expensive than mobilityWOD. However, it is still well affordable and also works on your strength.
As you get more advanced, you should invest in the appropriate equipment to continue training, but the majority of the workouts will be doable using body weight.
My one gripe about gymnastic bodies is that compared to mobilityWOD, it does not teach you about physiology. I know most people are more interested in results than how it works, but I am a firm believer in the idea that knowledge is power.
If it is important to you to understand strength and mobility at the level of physiology, I’d suggest doing mobilityWOD alongside Gymnastic Bodies, or reading Dr. Kelly Starrett’s: How To Become a Supple Leopard.
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Go to a Rolfer or Myofascial Release Therapist
Last but not least, you could go to an expert and have him or her do body work on you. This usually involves massage of some kind that uses various physical therapy instruments to release tension from your fascia.
Rolfing can cost between $100 and $250 per session depending on who you go to, but this type of work is very difficult to perform on yourself and goes a long way.
Unless you have cash to burn, I wouldn’t suggest using Rolfing as your sole method for improving mobility, but it’s a great thing to layer on top of another program as a monthly or bimonthly session.
Most major cities have plenty of bodywork or Rolfing clinics. Just go on Google and type in “Rolfing in My City.” Boom.
So there you have it. Solve the problem of sitting by optimizing your movement and get stronger with Grease the Groove while you’re at it. Prevent injury and release tension and maybe even trauma by going to a Rolfer and joining a program like Gymnastic Bodies or Mobility WOD to address your fascia.
I want to point out that the big thing you can do to optimize your health is to just get in the habit of interrupting your long stretches of sitting (or standing, if you do too much of that).
We dove into some other, more advanced, training methods with Grease the Groove and fascia work, but remember that the big danger to your health and hindrance to living your best life is stagnation. And thankfully, preventing the damages from that is as simple as standing up once every 30 minutes you sit.
We evolved as a species constantly interacting with gravity, so just keep that in mind and try to change body position and be a little more active throughout the day. It’s really that simple.
Personally, I’ve found that the simple awareness that my body is designed to move causes me to live a more active lifestyle, and I feel better for it.
When I’m working at my computer during the day, I use a tall chair with no armrests, which causes me to sit straighter. Every half-hour, I’ll stand up and do a few squats or push-ups.
I’ve noticed that I wake up faster and get to work more efficiently while maintaining energy throughout the day. When I used to work in an office job, I never maintained such a high level of focus and energy, and looking back, I used a cushy chair and only left my desk if I needed to go to the bathroom.
Of course, this isn’t all that has changed. Every day, I do a Gymnastic Bodies workout, usually consisting of 45 minutes of mobility work to open the hips, work on the thoracic spine, or release tension from my hamstrings. Then, before bed, I’ll do a few minutes of myofascial release using a foam roller or other tool.
Old and persistent injuries have almost disappeared, and I’ve become much stronger despite spending less than an hour a week on targeted strength workouts. Heck, I gained 5 lbs of muscle in the first two weeks of this program, but I can’t remember the last time I did a bicep curl, a shoulder press, or a barbell squat.
Frankly, I don’t feel like I’m even being an athlete; I just move throughout the day and stretch a bit at night, with some exercises thrown in for energy. However, my body feels better than it ever has before.
Don’t underestimate the power of movement. It’s what we are made for, and when you make simple changes and optimize your movement habits, it can change your whole life.