Don't Just Sit There

I am sure everyone has heard that we all sit too much. Even those of us who make the effort to work out for an hour or so a day, but then sit for long periods of time, are actually considered sedentary. With this sitting behavior we actually reverse some of the benefits of our exercise program. We are designed to move, and when we don’t, there are consequences.

An interesting study just published in the American Journal of Human Biology shows that our need for movement was set tens of thousands of years ago when human activity was largely hunting and gathering. Researchers worked with a group of modern-day hunters and gatherers called the Hadza, and fitted them with heart rate monitors in order to monitor their activity level and heart rate. The Hadza moved moderately for at least two hours per day, and they rarely exercised vigorously. According to the journal article, "The tribespeople also had enviable heart health. The scientists found that the Hadza typically showed low blood pressure and excellent cholesterol profiles across their life spans, even deep into old age."

The findings in this study are very consistent with what we know from the Blue Zones project. The Blue Zones are regions of the world where the highest percentage of centenarians live. These Blue Zone people are free from heart diseases, diabetes and many forms of cancer. People in the Blue Zones move most of the day, by gardening, tending their animals and walking to see their friends. They are not out running 10k races, pumping iron in a gym or going to Cross Fit.

So what are some of the advantages of moving more?  Note, I did not say “exercise.”

Reduce Foggy Brain: Moving muscles pump fresh blood and oxygen to the brain, triggering the release of chemicals that clear our thinking and improve our mood.

Better Use of Insulin. Your pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that carries glucose to cells for energy.  But muscles sitting idle cannot use the glucose and so it stays in the blood stream. The pancreas senses the excess glucose in the blood stream and produces more insulin.  Not good!  Too much insulin produces excess inflammation in your body and increases the risk for diabetes and some forms of cancer, such as colon and breast cancer.

Reduce Tight Hip Muscles.  Sitting too long keeps the muscles of the hip in a short position and creates weakness. Tight hips contribute to back pain and increase the risk of falls. 

Reduce Back and Neck Pain.  The spine was not designed to bear the kind of load we put on it.  Our hips and legs are better suited for supporting a healthy spine.  Sitting creates a great deal of compressive load to the spine. 

We have to make a conscious effort to fight the effects of our modern lifestyle. Sitting at desk jobs and in cars for most of the day, watching television, and eating processed foods creates disease. If we want to live well and age well, it isn't necessary to buy expensive exercise equipment or gym memberships. Rather, we do have to find more and better ways to move, and we need to eat real food. 

Here are a few suggestions to incorporate more movement into your day. This advice also goes for those of you who may exercise vigorously but still sit too much:

  • Park farther away from your destination.
  • Set an alarm on your watch or fitness tracker to beep every 40 minutes to remind you to get up and move for a few minutes.
  • When you are sitting at your desk, drink lots of water. You will have to get up and walk to the restroom more often.
  • When you are watching TV, get up during commercials and complete a quick task that requires standing or moving.
  • Stand up desks are great and standing is preferable to sitting but moving is still better.
  • Instead of sitting over a cup of coffee with a friend, get coffee to go and have a nice walk together.
  • Talk to your boss or the HR department at work and see if you can incorporate more walking meetings or other activities that get your co-workers moving. 
  • Make it a habit to go for a walk after a meal, even just a quick ten minutes. The activity will help your digestion and move some of the circulating fat and glucose into the working muscles where it belongs.