By Gena Akers
Have you been worried about the fact that you are a mortal being? Here’s some comfort sent by way of Seneca, some 2000 years ago: “You will not die because you are sick, but because you are alive.” Now, don’t you feel better?
Well, Seneca almost got it right. After reading a particularly upsetting article in the New York Times recently, I took the liberty of editing Seneca’s timeless words: “Gena, you will not die because you are sick, but because you are alive… and sitting in a chair.”
That’s right, my mere existence will account for about 94 percent of my death (humorous, non-scientific estimation. No source necessary). My office chair, home desk chair and kitchen stool… those four legged fiends get the remaining 6 percent.
To steal from Gretchen Reynolds, a fellow sitter, thinker of thoughts and writer of words, “ One lesson I’ve learned while writing about fitness is that few things impinge on an active life as much as writing about fitness—all that time spent hunched before a computer or puzzling over scientific journals, the countless hours of feckless, seated procrastination.”
But my writing is selfless. I spend time sitting and writing so you, dear reader, can be thin, fit and immortal. As a friend says, who spends her 9-to-5 life fighting childhood obesity, “all the skinny kids… that’s me. All the fat kids… I had nothing to do with that.”
Well, you too, thin readers… can say thanks to me and one of my occasional health-conscious ramblings for changing your life. And for you not-soo-thin readers, I had nothing to do with those 5 extra pounds you gained last winter.
Okay, okay. I got sidetracked. Selfless or selfish, I sit too much. I really do. It came with some annoyance to admit that it doesn’t matter how much I exercise, it matters how much I exercise and how much I don’t exercise—namely how inactive I am.
The University of Massachusetts did a study to see just how much a sedentary lifestyle affects overall health. It measured the effect of physical inactivity by giving a group of healthy young men heavy platform shoes with 4-inch heals for their right feet. The men were instructed to hobble around on their right feet with crutches for two days. They were to leave their left feet dangling: no muscle contractions, no touching the ground.
After 48 hours, the scientists biopsied both legs and found multiple genes already being expressed differently. The inactive left leg revealed lower insulin levels, slower metabolic activity and disrupted DNA repair in comparison to the right. To honor Seneca, one could say “every man’s left leg was dying…” but that doesn’t get at the full truth.
A second experiment that shines light on the truth involved putting the back legs of lab animals in casts. Soon after, the newly handicapped animals were already producing substantially less of an enzyme that dissolves fat in the bloodstream… an enzyme important for staving off cardiac disease and diabetes.
So, it’s really not the TV or TV dinners or awful commercials that are killing you. It’s that you’re alive… and not producing enough enzymes to break down fat or a billion other things I didn’t learn about in my undergraduate philosophy courses.
You know what will help? Standing! A related study at the University of Massachusetts showed that when volunteers stood all day, (just standing, no walking or jogging) they burned hundreds more calories than their fellow sitters. Standing isn’t even considered exercise, but on the scale from 1 to death, it puts you a lot closer to 1.
Well, if you’re like me, consider an office remodel. Maybe, funnel the architectural foresight of the Shakers. Hang your office chairs on the wall. Then balance your computer on one of the office chairs. Then stand, facing your freshly mounted chair and computer to send emails, edit project proposals, and whatever else you do through a keyboard to improve humanity. After a few weeks, maybe hang up a picture of an open window next to your chair. You don’t want to feel like you’re in timeout.
Whether you hang your chair on your office wall or take walk-around-the-office breaks every 15 minutes, you’re still going to die. That’s nothing to be sad about. Just make sure you can do what you want to do until then. For most people, that involves some kind of movement, beyond pressing numbers or letters on a TV remote, smartphone or keyboard.
And don’t worry about me, this article only took two hours of sedentary writing. I would write more but…. (the author of this article just left for a walk).
Gena Akers is the project coordinator for SanLuisValleyHealth.org, an education and advocacy website dedicated to increasing access to health for all residents in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. SanLuisValleyHealth.org is a project of the San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center and funded through The Colorado Trust. She can be contacted at email@example.com.