How sitting is killing you and what to do about it.
If you are lucky enough to be a carpenter, you will spend 90% of your day standing up for your health. However, if your passion is web design or accounting, that number flips into the danger zone. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2020 many of us spend up to 90% of our working hours sitting. Statistically speaking, the greater your time spent sitting, the faster you get to your grave. Incidents of type 2 diabetes, deep vein thrombosis, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome increase as the hours in your chair go up. Your risk of death is a whopping 40% higher if you spend more than half your day on your duff.
The human body is designed to move. And much of our mental energy is devoted to survival: the detection of danger and the avoidance of death. We have a huge physiological shift into our sympathetic nervous system when we sense a bear in the room. We are flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone. And if the brain believes it is life or death, our adrenal system will get in the mix and turn on an internal red alert. Blood is then moved to the major muscles to prepare for flight. To limit our bleeding, blood is also shunted from the surface of the skin; in case we take a lacerating blow. All this shunting and pooling results in internal pressure changes. Your blood pressure is now high, taxing the system, creating vascular constriction.
The brain is a greedy organ burning twice the calories of any other. When the survival mode is activated, the brain sharpens and listens. Our eyes dart around looking for danger, our heart rate increases. We begin to calculate the benefits of freezing; like a white rabbit as the hawk flies over, or backpedaling to safety. All our mental calculations are based on our world view, previous experiences, and chances of getting away. Whether we successfully outrun the bear completely, get away with only a scratch or stay frozen on the spot; we have used our bodies as they were designed: for survival.
My family joke that my ‘bear bell’ deterrent system is actually a bear magnet. I love to go on long runs during my vacations in Northern Canada. I adore feeling small and human, humbled by mighty nature. Sticky pine, loud cicadas and grasshoppers using my legs as a vault. I wear a small bell that makes a sound with every step. The bell is intended to warn surrounding bears in the wild that I am 1) here 2) not trying to surprise them 3) moving in a trajectory they could avoid. I have had three up close encounters with my furry smelly friends. It seems my bell is the call of the wild. From breaking out of the brush directly in front of me; to a mama and two cubs sauntering across the road I had just crossed. I seem to attract bears.
My blood freezing incident was when a grizzly squared off in my path and began swinging her (his?) head in a low arch while chuffing. Later that same summer, I cornered a bear behavior scientist at Algonquin Park’s meet the researcher day. I described the event, my bell, the bear’s behavior. I asked what could I have done better? What can I do to avoid this in the future? Worryingly, the response was: ‘It was a good bear, on a good day.’ They offered no prescription for future encounters, no advice for what I could have done better. My take away: you will have these moments in your life. I can call up the smell of the dusty road, how my salty sweat was constricting my skin. A nose full of unwashed carnivore: decaying meat and crusted feces. The warning she gave, front legs splayed, head swaying. The guttural vibration that resonated into my solar plexus. Stay back.
Now imagine that the bear comes in the form of an email. And all the physiological responses come flowing down from our ancestral mountain. But, you’re sitting. You’re electrically disconnected from half your body. Your body is not being used as a huge pump for the cerebral spinal fluids. Your circulation from the waist down is constricted and limited. We have the same physiological responses to the email ‘bear’ as I did to the real one. Your body lights up, constricts, shunts blood flow, increases your blood pressure. To the body, stress is stress. The source is inconsiquential. Real bear or a bear of an email and the sympathetic nervous system responds the same way.
When my grizzly finally grunted and lumbered down the ditch and toward the pond, I was electric. I slowly walked in the opposite direction. Then when she was out of sight, I ran the final kilometers into town. The running flushed the adrenaline, eased my shaking and began to calm my mind with rhythmic breathing. Movement cured my stress. I was able to rebalance my nervous system. I went from total survival mode hypervigilance to a ready and steady state.
When a bear of an email lands in your inbox, I challenge you to flush your system with movement. Consciously choose to bring your body back into a balanced vagal response. Sitting deadens our ability to shift out of fight, flight or freeze. It keeps us in the elevated high stress expression. So much so, many of us now call that agitated and wired feeling ‘normal.’
If you have a job that requires hours in front of the computer, all is not lost. I have a NEAT way for you to stand up for your health. NEAT is Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. It encompasses all the pen tapping, heel shaking, head bobbing movements that can fill our day. I encourage my clients to use good sense to increase the frequency of movement at their workstation.
- Get a standing desk.
- Sit on a Swiss ball every other hour.
- Interrupt sitting by hydrating.
- Choose to stand the rest of the day.
- Go to the farthest bathroom.
- Take the stairs.
- Have a workout ‘snack’ like ten push ups or twenty jumping jacks.
- Pace on the phone or take the call on an outdoor walk.
- Close your office door, put some music on and dance for one song.
- Walk to pick up your lunch.
- Clean your house.
- If you are watching television: do 10 stand ups / sit downs whenever a character says yes.
- Walk the dog.
- Get off the bus one stop early.
- Walk to the store instead of having things delivered.
- Commit to a sunset walk every day.
- Take up nature photography or bird watching.
- Join or create a team step challenge with work colleagues.
- Meet friends for a hike instead of a drink.
- Stand up every time you hit send on an email. (I do a little endzone fist pump, too)
- Set a timer on your phone for an hour and when it goes off: drink 4oz of water, inhale for four counts, exhale for 8 counts then walk ten steps as a reset.
If a ‘bear’ lumbers into your work day, give your nervous system an opportunity to rebalance you through movement. Our health is fixed in the small consistent details we execute every day. Honor the purpose of your nervous system’s survival mechanisms, to keep you alive. Science has shown us the dangers of sitting and also the body’s response to stressors. Give yourself a fighting chance to increase your longevity: move your money maker.
May all the bears on your path be having a good day.