You’ve heard it a million times: The hours we spend sitting in front of our computers, sitting in front of the TV and sitting just about everywhere else are adding up. We are sitting ourselves to death.
So it came as welcome news when we read last week that just 10 minutes — 10 minutes! — of walking after sitting for a long period of time can restore the damage to our vascular system.
But what about all those other studies that said we’re doomed? Those that say that exercise probably can’t save us, and that even if we go to the gym every night, it’s still not enough?
But then there’s the study telling us we can fidget our way out of the harmful effects of sitting. Should we demand a standing desk or just lean back in our office chairs and throw up our hands?
We here at Shots decided to call up the guy who’s arguably the godfather of the sitting-ourselves-to-death concept to get the bottom line: Can we be saved?
James Levine is the inventor of the treadmill desk and co-director of Obesity Solutions at the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University. He’s also a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and author of the book Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.
Naturally, Levine spoke to us via speakerphone while walking around his office.
Cut to the chase. Is going to the gym a waste of time because we’re all doomed anyway?
The vast majority of people — more than three-quarters of the population — do not go to the gym. They simply don’t go. People feel stigmatized, it’s too expensive and people are simply too busy. So for them, spin classes, Pilates and the amount of it one does is completely irrelevant.
How about your readers who do go to the gym — what’s in it for them? This is, I think, where the confusion comes from. But it isn’t actually that confusing. What is very, very clear is the following: If you actually go to the gym and exercise, that is a really, really good thing for you. And the data suggests that the more of it you do, the more benefit you will reap.
However, something you do at the end of the day for one hour, three evenings a week, doesn’t actually offset the harm for what you do 15 hours a day, seven days a week: sit. These are independent variables — excess sitting and the presence or absence of exercise. Doing exercise is great if you do it. But that doesn’t offset the harm, even in the few people who do it, from excess sitting.
Yikes. What is the solution?
When you have the annual staff meeting, [put] up your hand and [say] look, it’s obvious that sitting is really harmful. What are we going to do as a company to give us better productivity and better health?
I met with a client at one of our corporate programs. She literally ran up and hugged me. She said, “Dr. Levine, I’ve lost 35 pounds.” I said, “How?” She said, “I decided to take this on as a mission. Instead of watching TV with the kids, we go walking. I take the bus to work instead of my car. At work, I have many of my meetings [be] walk and talk. I sort of built this into my life. And guess what? The weight came off me.”
We recommend people drawing up a careful plan about what they’re going to do about excess sitting. How about I conduct this telephone call, instead of sitting at my desk, but on a speakerphone pacing around while I’m talking to you. It requires planning.
So there’s no quick fix?
Often people want tips and tricks. You know, get a phone with a long cord, get a treadmill desk, get a bouncy ball, get a standing desk, get this, get that. Like anything that’s important in our lives, the solution is not tips and tricks. The solution is a proper, sustained assault on the problem.
There’s a lot more to be gained by engaging your intellect and coming up with a proper plan than going shopping. And if you’re really into this and you feel that [a treadmill desk] will help you, [it] probably will help you. But a treadmill desk isn’t the solution in and of itself. The solution is you, the individual.
When you look at the research, do you see questions that remain unanswered?
There are 150,000 unanswered questions, and I think what we could do is delay action for 15 more centuries and do absolutely nothing. But that would be the greatest tragedy of all.
At this point in time, today, we have enough information to share with individuals, companies, schools and cities that we need to get people up off their bottoms, on their legs and off their chairs. That information is sure. And I think there’s a lot more research to be done, but we do not need to wait a second longer.
Can you leave us with a few words of inspiration to get us up and going?
In 20 years of building programs for companies and working with patients, I’ve never had a single person contact me to say this hasn’t made their life better. Every person thus far I’ve interacted with [tells] me that their lives are better in some way. The surprising thing is that this advice comes with a money-back guarantee. I guarantee that if you get up and move more than you do, if you escape the chair sentence, you will be happier for it in some way.