This post is as much for me as it is for you.
A couple years ago, I lost almost 40 pounds through some wise lifestyle changes:
- switching to an entirely plant-based diet (i.e., vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains)
- vowing to stop drinking my calories (ditching fancy espresso drinks and switching to water and unsweetened tea instead)
- infusing regular exercise into my routine
I have to be honest, though. I backslid over the past year and at one point had gained almost 10 of those pounds back.
The very clear reason was this:
I was working way, way more.
Several involved consulting projects came up all at once, and I ended up spending many long hours at my desk and in meetings.
And that means that I was sitting way more. (And yes, downing a few of those fancy coffee drinks out of desperation.)
I did a little soul searching about all this and decided that for my health and well-being — and also the health of this blog — I needed to scale back the amount of consulting work I take on.
A Washington Post article I came across helped reinforce my decision.
But it also underscored for me that, no matter what kind of work I'm doing or how much of it I do, I need to approach it in a different way...
I need to move a whole lot more. And, most likely, so do you.
Here's an overview of the facts that persuaded me to make a change, along with a few suggestions about how to do it...
The Dangers of Sitting
Your Chair Could Actually Kill You
The above article cited a long-term study of 123,000 adults which showed that women who sat for 6+ hours per day on average had a 34% higher mortality rate than those who sat for fewer than 3 hours per day.
Yes, you read that right.
That's only slightly lower than the risk posed by smoking. (The increased risk posed by inactivity was lower for men at 17%, but still nothing to sneeze at.)
What's really notable here is that the risk was higher even for people with a daily 45–60 minute exercise routine.
As a like-minded colleague of mine is fond of saying, "Sitting is the new smoking."
Your Chair Could Make You Seriously Sick
Type II diabetes. Cardiovascular disease. Arthritis. Sleep apnea. Gallstones. Cancer.
According to a scientific journal article published by the American Heart Association, those are just a few of the problems that can result from a lifestyle involving lots of sitting.
And It Will Eventually Destroy Your Back
Extensive sitting also will do nasty things to your back:
This fascinating Business Week article outlines the damage done by our office chairs. One of many reasons is that sitting in chairs — even those with lumbar support — turns the back's natural "S" curve into a "C" curve which cannot adequately support your body's weight. It puts pressure on your discs and weakens the core muscles that protect your back.
And what happens when your back hurts? Or when your joints hurt from carrying around extra weight?
You end up avoiding the kind of physical activity that helps prevent chronic disease and premature death. It becomes a vicious cycle.
Huh? Why Does Sitting Do Such Nasty Things to Us?
It seems crazy that simply sitting can be so dangerous, doesn't it?
But think about it. Our bodies evolved to move — to forage, hunt, travel on foot, that sort of thing. All this sitting is a pretty recent phenomenon.
My reading turned up the following facts about what's happening inside us when we don't use our bodies as they were intended. The startling thing is that some of the following changes begin happening almost immediately when we sit down...
- Unused muscles begin to atrophy.
- Your muscle structure changes from "slow-twitch" (endurance) fibers to "fast-twitch" fibers. (Slow-twitch muscle fibers burn fat, fast-twitch fibers don't.)
- Enzymes that break down fat in your bloodstream switch off.
- Insulin resistance develops.
The result is weight gain and an accumulation of fat and sugar in your bloodstream — leading to the types of chronic diseases and other problems mentioned above.
Benefits of Movement
If the prospect of avoiding all these problems isn't enough to motivate you to want to make a change, consider these other positive benefits you'll also experience...
(I'm talking to myself here too!)
Be Smarter & More Productive
Have you ever had this experience?
You're sitting at your desk, and you've got some problem you're trying to solve, or maybe a persuasive email you're trying to write, and you're feeling completely stuck. Nothing useful is coming to mind. So finally you give up and walk down the hall to get a cup of coffee.
And then suddenly it occurs to you: the perfect way forward with your task.
That happens to me all the time. (Except it's a cup of tea. :) )
One of the notions behind the popular Pomodoro Technique is a fundamental principle of human productivity:
We lose focus and creativity when we sit with a task for too long.
Science backs up that idea.
For instance, one study showed that people generate more high-quality ideas both during and after walking than while sitting for long periods.
But movement goes further than that in its ability to boost your brain power. In fact, it can physically change your brain.
When you exercise, blood flow increases in your brain and triggers the growth of new neurons, particularly in your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus — the parts of your brain responsible for memory, decision making, problem solving, and other functions essential to productivity.
And for one final boost to your ability to get things done, consider this:
Move more, and you'll have more energy thanks to the way low-intensity exercise seems to stimulate the central nervous system.
(Remember what Tony Schwartz says: Managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal.)
So just to recap:
- Problem solving
- Decision making
- Mental agility
You want these good things don't you? They'll all improve when you start getting more physical activity throughout your day.
Be Happier & Calmer
Exercise is a powerful drug.
You've probably heard the term "runner's high". The kind of euphoria that can kick in during an intense run (or other high-intensity exercise) is related to the increased production of endorphins — the body's natural opiates that ease pain and produce pleasure.
However, even more moderate physical activity can positively impact your mood and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety — most likely by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, which is the same way many antidepressant medications work.
In fact, research has demonstrated that not only is exercise every bit as effective as antidepressants in relieving depression, its effects are longer lasting.
We've all had it hammered repeatedly into our heads that "diet and exercise" is the route to weight loss and a trim, fit body.
But here are a couple facts that may come as more of a surprise...
First, moving more during your work day can help you lose belly fat.
According to Dr. James Levine, author of Move a Little, Lose a Lot, this kind of moderate exercise seems to be more effective than others at targeting your tummy. In fact, he cites a six-month study in which overweight/obese women who walked the equivalent of just 10 minutes per day lost nearly 2 inches from their waists.
Second, for some people, moderate aerobic exercise can suppress your appetite.
This can help with overall weight loss, provided you don't eat when you're not hungry. Researchers are still working out exactly how exercise impacts appetite, but it appears to be linked to changes in levels of certain hormones.
So What Exactly Should You Do?
Even if you have a regular exercise routine, the message here is that it's probably not enough.
If your job has you sitting for most of the day (at a desk, in meetings, etc.), it's critical that you make a change — for your health, happiness, productivity, and more.
But the good news is that the solution is pretty simple...
Most of us are sedentary for 55–75% of our waking hours. Just getting up and moving for 5 minutes once every hour can make a huge difference. (Although 2 or 3 times per hour is even better.)
It doesn't need to be vigorous — even a gentle stroll has been found to be very effective in eliminating the negative effects of sitting and promoting some of the benefits of physical activity.
How Can You Do It?
Knowing what to do is well and good. Often the hard part is getting yourself to do it. Here are three principles to think about:
1. Remind Yourself
When we're under stress, absorbed by our tasks, or distracted by other people, it's easy to forget. So you'll need some mechanism for reminding yourself to make sure you're moving.
Or a fitness band like the Jawbone UP (pictured here) goes with you wherever you are and can be set to vibrate at regular intervals if you haven't been moving enough. That's what I use.
2. Find Activities That Work For You
Obviously, you need to find types of physical activities that work well for you, your job, and your workplace.
I have the luxury of often working from home, so I can wear exercise clothing and hop on our treadmill now and then, or pull out the yoga mat I have stashed in the corner of my office.
But even in a traditional office, you can find activities that are doable:
- Take a brisk walk down the hall
- Hold a walk-and-talk meeting with a colleague
- Stand and pace during phone calls
- Take the stairs
- Do office yoga
- Or try these other office-friendly exercises
Or get a group involved and add "instant recess" as a regular fixture in your workplace. Dr. Toni Yancey's book outlines the why's and how's of getting started, and this YouTube playlist shows some sample "instant recess" workouts to inspire you.
3. Remove the Barriers
When we don't take action on something important, often it's because there are subtle barriers standing in our way.
Your best shot at success is removing those barriers.
So try this...
- Set a reminder for every 30 minutes for the rest of today. When it goes off, get up and move in some way (see examples above).
- If you find yourself resisting, or if you're in a situation where you simply can't get up and move, just make a mental note of what's preventing you.
- At the end of the day, ask yourself: "What stopped me from moving enough today?" Identify the culprits, and then develop a strategy for removing at least one of those barriers tomorrow.
It might be something as simple as switching to more comfortable footwear.
Or often other people can seem like a barrier. Talk with your colleagues about the value of physical activity at work — perhaps share this article with them — and together you might find a solution that benefits everyone.
Whatever barriers you do identify, take a little stroll while you contemplate them, and I'll bet you'll be able to come up with a creative solution!
Meanwhile, keep in mind that no matter what your starting point, just doing a little bit more can have a big impact.
Research shows that any movement is better than nothing, and a little can go a long way.
We can do this! Let's get moving.