July 5, 2015

Read this while standing

By Carl Gustafson

“What you are doing, right now, is killing you!” Nilofer Merchant scanned a suddenly breathless crowd with a faux menace at her 2013 TED talk. The audience anxiously awaited her answer: what could possibly be killing us so menacingly and discretely that we would simply sit here and allow it?

Well, I agree with her, so let me repeat it. What you are doing, right now, is killing you. And me.

We are sitting. And that is what is killing us. I often sit for 8-10 hours every day: reading papers, documenting results, in meetings, culturing cells, you name it – I am sitting down. Then I go home, and…I sit down because I am thoroughly exhausted from all of the sitting. There is nothing inherently wrong with sitting – it would be just as bad or worse if we were standing on our heads for 8-10 hours a day. It is simply the lack of change in velocity, the stationary state, the inactivity in excess that does us in. Just ask Dr. James Levine, the Mayo Clinic-Arizona researcher who coined the phrase “Sitting is the new smoking” simply because, well, the data says it is. The desk chair, the couch, and the recliner are all killing us – they are the scourge of our generation, brought on by an office-based workforce, a vice more rampant than smoking ever was, and contributing to the propagation of a host of chronic pathologies.

Despite frequenting the Dan Abraham center, playing tennis, volleyball, and running triathlons, I essentially live a sedentary lifestyle. And so does nearly every other graduate student, PI, research technician, post-doc or fellow at the Mayo Clinic. Unfortunately, research shows that the 45 minutes of spin class after work, or the run, or the yoga class, do not reverse the damage inflicted from a day of sitting. Here we sit, scientific visionaries prepared to change the paradigms of medical practice and we are slowly, unknowingly, failing to raise our potential by simultaneously failing to rise out of our seats.

Fortunately, we work in an organization filled with innovators and solution-makers. We are here to find solutions for the greatest afflictions to plague humanity, and this cultural epidemic is one of them. Even if culturing cells while walking or pedaling may not be feasible, I am convinced that we can find ways to sit less.

So what can you do to decrease your sitting time? Not everybody wants to be the solo “has-his-own-special-standing-desk” guy in the office. I get it – I don’t either, I like being invited to things. But having one at home probably wouldn’t hurt for those evening shifts writing reports while watching Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. There are easier ways. During her talk, Nilofer Merchant offered a possibly more practical solution to this problem: she advocates for “walking meetings” to replace standard, office-based, sitting meetings. She noted that we average 9.3 hours of sitting time, compared to 7.7 hours of sleeping time every day (I’m sure the graduate student population in the US is weighing the sleeping average down…).  Her meetings take her and, I suppose, whoever has the great fortune of meeting with her, walking as many as 20-30 miles every week. According to Dr. Levine, a single walking meeting would increase your daily energy expenditure by 150-200 kcal. Though a walking meeting might not be appropriate for your entire lab group, I think we could all stand (get it?!) to replace a couple one-on-one meetings every week with a walk outside to the locally owned coffee shop, not the starbucks mini-café in the next building.

Walking the stairs instead of taking the elevator up two flights is a great way to add some activity to your day (à la, “Take the stairs, for a healthier you!” - I secretly love this sign campaign). In order to encourage this, I vote that we make our stairways slightly less like the only passage to the highest room in the tallest tower in the dragon guarded castle, and more like the stairs at your parent’s split level: littered with pictures or posters, well-lit, and colorful.

So where’s the silver lining in all of this gloomy “death by sitting” business? A report published just last April in Preventative Medicine found that Europeans, in 27 countries surveyed, are decreasing their overall sitting time. Between 2002 and 2013, average time spent sitting every day decreased significantly from 316.2 to 291.9 minutes. By no means does this indicate that the US population has followed suit, or that this decrease is matched by an increase in population health, but it does mean that less time in the chair is possible. Our Atlantic neighbors are beginning to lead a healthy trend that is getting them out of their chairs and back on their feet. Let’s keep Mayo Clinic in front of this wave of healthy change and continue to lead the nation by overthrowing the rule of the chair and clamoring for change by climbing to our feet.

Got a great idea for how we can all spend less time sitting? Mention it in the comments below!

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