Sitting kills, who would say that?
Sitting Kills, Moving Heals is a title of a book by Joan Vernikos. It grabs my attention. Why? Because it is a light read with an important message.
Joan is an expert in stress and aging, a former director of Life Sciences at NASA. She was responsible for the health and well-being of the astronauts. It is known that astronauts suffer from a fast physical deterioration when in space. Their muscles become weaker and their immune system is compromised among many other symptoms. They basically experience symptoms of an advanced aging. Joan links these side effects to the lack of gravity.
She suggests that the same mechanism relates to the sedentary lifestyle. When we sit, we totally rely on a chair or couch and we find ourselves in a nearly anti-gravity pose. Joan recommends that we use gravity to our advantage by moving our body as often as possible. This doesn’t sound as anything new as we all know that right exercise promotes health.
The key lies in what we understand by the word “moving“.
Move, sweetheart, move
According to Vernikos exercising a few times a week will not help much if the remaining time is spent predominantly sitting. You will still experience physical deterioration. It is the everyday little movements, often and short, which interrupt sitting (or standing if one stands for long hours) that make the difference and promote health.
She discovers that the very act of standing up from a sitting position is very effective and beneficial for health. Her message is simple:
“Sitting is okay, but it’s uninterrupted sitting that is bad for us.”
“We are not designed to sit continuously. […] It’s not how many hours of sitting that’s bad for you; it’s how often you interrupt that sitting that is good for you!”
Standing up once per hour is more effective than walking on a treadmill for 15 minutes for cardiovascular and metabolic changes. Sitting down and standing up continuously for 32 minutes does not have the same effect as standing up once, 32 times over the course of a day (the latter is far better).
It’s interesting, isn’t it? To get the benefit, the non-exercise activity has to be spread throughout the day.
This is not a new concept as many bodyworkers will say the same: we are designed to move, not to sit neither stand for long hours.
Because the balance of the body is constantly being achieved when we move. While the old paradigm views bones and muscles as the structure of a body, a new paradigm views bones as floating in the connective tissue. It’s the connective tissue, the “endless web” that connects and supports. Connective tissue, in response to movement, is the organizing factor of the structure.
In other words, health is not a fixed state, it is being achieved while body is moving. Moment by moment.
The movement we are taking about is the non-exercise movement, such as standing up, kneeling, stretching to reach a book on a shelf, vacuum cleaning, sweep brushing, chopping vegs, shredding cabbage, bending to wash a baby etc. These are all types of movements that were daily companions of our grandparents.
They should be ours as well!
The work of Vernikos is not new per se. The importance of movement and gravity dates back to the work of Goldthwait in the beginning of the 20th century (see references below) and later to Ida Rolf. These ideas were however not appreciated, neither incorporated into the medical practice. Luckily, they are being used by bodyworkers.
It is only recently that the prolonged sitting has been brought to the public attention by a number of researchers. The book of Vernikos is important as she adds her unique perspective on the importance of challenging the gravity for our health. “These are all movements, almost below-threshold kind of movements, that do not burn up a lot of calories, as we know them, but that are designed to work against gravity”.
Why the little frequent non-exercise movements are paramount comes as a consequence of the role of the connective tissue. I’ve been long fascinated by what knowledgeable bodyworkers can achieve in a short time. They use structural alignment and initiation of right processes in the body so that the body can self-align itself.
Let me cite one of the books by Oschman that explains the importance of the connective tissue:
“The overall form of the body, as well as the architecture and mechanical and functional properties of all of its parts, are largely determined by the local configuration and properties of the connective tissue. All of the so-called great systems of the body […] are ensheathed in and partitioned by connective tissue. The connective tissue forms a continuously interconnected system throughout the living body. All movements, of the body as a whole and of its smallest parts, are created by tensions carried through the connective tissue fabric. It is a liquid crystalline material and its components are semiconductors…”
“Connective tissue structure is a record or memory of the forces imposed on the organism. This historical record has two components. The genetic part recapitulates the story of how our ancestors successfully adapted to the gravitational field of the earth. The acquired component is a record of the choices, habits, and traumas we have experienced during our individual lifetime. The collagen fibers orient in a way that can best support future stresses, assuming the organism continues the same patterns of movement or disuse.”
This all means that any injury, habitual or prolonged patterns (such as sitting) will be recorded into the connective tissue. In response, misaligned body leads to disturbance in patterns of neural activity, blood and lymph flow and muscular contraction. In a long term it will result in groups of immobilized and flaccid muscles that reduce nutrition and oxygenation of cells and tissues. The body becomes tense and then various health issues and diseases may arise.
It is the overall tension release and frequent non-exercise movements that contribute to our health, as any change in habits, even slight, will alter the connective tissue architecture.
Except of the importance of understanding the role of connective tissue, a physiology of inactivity comes to the surface. When you sit for long hours, your body does things that are bad for you.
For instance, consider LPL, lipoprotein lipase, which is a “fat-storing enzyme”. It is produced by many tissues, including muscles, and it plays a key role in how body processes fat. LPL is significantly reduced during sitting (or inactivity), and increases with activity. It attaches to triglycerides from the blood and transports them to the muscles. It splits them into fatty acids, which are stored in fat cells.
Low levels of LPL are associated with a number of health problems, including heart disease. So, when you sit, your metabolism slows down (leg muscles don’t produce LPL). According to Vernikos, a very effective activity for the LPL surge is standing up from sitting.
Even though the studies are not very extensive yet, the data are clear. Too much sitting leads to increased risks of various diseases and premature death.
Chair is basically an enemy of your health.
- A study published in the journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 41: 998-1005, Sitting time and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer looked at the fates of more than 17000 Canadians over the span of 12 years. The results present a warning: the mortality risk from all causes was 1.54 times higher among people with daily sedentary lifestyle compared to those who sat infrequently.
“Experimentally reducing normal spontaneous standing and ambulatory time had a much greater effect on LPL regulation than adding vigorous exercise training on top of the normal level of nonexercise activity. Those studies also found that inactivity initiated unique cellular processes that were qualitatively different from the exercise responses. In summary, […] the average nonexercising person may become even more metabolically unfit in the coming years if they sit too much, thereby limiting the normally high volume of intermittent nonexercise physical activity in everyday life.”
“Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, colon cancer, breast cancer, dementia and depression constitute a cluster of diseases, which defines ‘a diseasome of physical inactivity’. Both physical inactivity and abdominal adiposity, reflecting accumulation of visceral fat mass, are associated with the occurrence of the diseases within the diseasome.[…] Physical inactivity appears to be an independent and strong risk factor for accumulation of visceral fat, which again is a source of systemic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is involved in the pathogenesis of insulin resistance, atherosclerosis, neurodegeneration and tumour growth.[…]
The finding that muscles produce and release myokines provides a conceptual basis to understand the mechanisms whereby exercise influences metabolism and exerts anti-inflammatory effects. According to our theory, contracting skeletal muscles release myokines, which work in a hormone-like fashion, exerting specific endocrine effects on visceral fat. Other myokines work locally within the muscle via paracrine mechanisms, exerting their effects on signalling pathways involved in fat oxidation.”
To learn that energy expanded during sitting is nothing in comparison to even gum chewing, fidgeting and standing, see a study in Non-exercise activity thermogenesis: the crouching tiger hidden dragon of societal weight gain, presented in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 2006 26: 729-736.
- Another study in 2010, Sedentary Behaviors Increase Risk of Cardiovascular Disease Mortality in Men, in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2010, 42:5, 879-885, shows that men who sit for more than 23 hours a week had a 64 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than those who sit less than 11 hours a week.
- There is also a study entitled Breaks in Sedentary Time: Beneficial associations with metabolic risk in Diabetes Care Journal 2008, 31:4, 661-666, which provides evidence in favor of interrupting the sitting time frequently. A larger number of breaks are associated with better metabolic profiles, including waist circumference and glucose metabolism.
Take away message
Even if you run every day or regularly work-out, it doesn’t matter much to your health if you spend most of the day sitting, be it your car, your office chair or your couch. You are at an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers and an early death.
You can change your lifestyle by incorporating a few simple steps that will improve your odds (of a good health) drastically:
- Stand up frequently, ideally every 20-30min.
- Move throughout the work day. Walk around, do some stretching or eye exercises, do a few squats, reach for a book, clean your desk, prepare your herbal infusion (such as nettle).
- Stand or walk when you can. Do it when you are actively thinking, talking over phone or discussing an idea with others. You can also transform your desk to allow you to work while standing.
- Sit on an exercise ball. It calls your core muscles for action and helps improve balance and flexibility.
- Use a rocking chair while you relax, watch TV or read. Rocking chairs encourage the activity of your muscles. See e.g. this page or that article.
- Reduce TV or computer time at home.
- Practice stretching or core stability exercises.
Books by Joan Vernikos:
Books by James Oschman:
Work of Goldthwait:
- Body Mechanics and Health by Joel Ernest Goldthwait and Leah Coleman Thomas
- “The Relation of Posture to Human Efficiency and the Influence of Poise Upon the Support and Function of the Viscera” by Joel Ernest Goldthwait in Boston Medical and Surgerical Journal 161: 839-848, 1909.
Books by Ida Rolf:
Photo courtesy Dita Actor, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.