A “Sitting is the New Smoking” Skeptic Spends a Year in California

For a few years we’ve been hit over the head with health stories that equate sitting as being as unhealthy as smoking. And I’ve been a disbelieving skeptic. My thinking was that efficient exercise that targeted fast twitch muscle fibers could prevent the atrophy of the muscles caused by sitting.

Stories that said even active people were at risk failed to make an impression on me, because I am aware of what the classic definitions of exercise are. Jogging on a treadmill or using momentum to knock out a few sets of weight lifting aren’t going to be effective at building and strengthening the muscles we put into disuse from hours of sitting.

I felt that if I took a HIT approach to targeting the glute muscles that I could spend minutes a day giving me a free pass to sitting hours. So I created an exercise called the Static Windmill and shared it in the post Merging Foundation Training With Hillfit. The exercise works. I still believe in it. It solves the atrophy problem, but I learned after a year in California that is only half the problem.

Driving is the Worst

When I sit for hours at a desk, I move my legs. I stand up. I fidget. On rare occasions will I freeze my position for more than an hour. Driving is the opposite. When I am in my hatchback, my movement is frozen. When I am on the road moving, there isn’t much I can do to vary my posture. I’m locked in until the trip is terminated.

During my year in California I drove a lot more than I was driving in Seattle. On February 26th, I shared these numbers on Facebook.

facebook-driving

Then I discovered all the cool city tours of San Francisco and I started driving even more. From February until the day before I left, I averaged 56 miles a day. This was not an hour in the car. It was HOURS in the car every day. Sometimes I was stuck in traffic. A lot of it was city driving.

Health Decline

The ten pounds I lost on the Fat Loss Bet prior to leaving was regained. I experimented with Food Reward and didn’t make any progress. At the same time I was tightening up my diet, I was increasing my driving.

I am no longer a skeptic to stories that talk about the reduced metabolic effect hours of sitting can have on your body. I experienced it. I do think doing my Static Windmill helped, but it was only part of the problem. The body wants to move. It doesn’t like to be trapped for hours in a car.

Not only did I gain weight, but I felt more lethargic. I felt rusty.

traffic light

Photo by Paul Clarke

Back in Seattle

I’m driving less now that I am back in Seattle. Not as less as I’d like, but the driving trips are shorter than the ones I was taking in the SF Bay Area. In Seattle, I am often taking 2-3 mile drives. In the SF area, many of my trips were 20-30 miles. Even the short trips were 7-10 miles.

My goal is to drive less. Leaving California was a huge first step in making that happen.

Published by

MAS

Critical MAS is the blog for Michael Allen Smith of Seattle, Washington. My interests include traditional food, fitness, economics, and web development.

21 thoughts on “A “Sitting is the New Smoking” Skeptic Spends a Year in California”

  1. Your experiences mirror one of the first ever studies done that linked morbidity with lack of activity. London bus drivers, who sat throughout their shifts, were shown to have a lower life expectancy than their conductor colleagues who stayed on their feet and moved around the bus collecting fares. Along with the other study that showed that longshoremen working on the docks also had a longer life span than more sedentary occupations, these were the foundations of what eventually led to the aerobics /cardio and running boom of the 70’s and 80’s. Unfortunately the wrong take home message was extrapolated from these studies and others done after them that were similar. It took a long time for exercise scientists to break out of the aerobics paradigm and start to look at other areas. Even Arthur Jones’s Nautilus West Pointstudy in the seventies, had its biggest selling point centred around the improved cardio ability of it’s participants.

  2. @Stuart – Good comment. The more I look at health puzzles, the more I see them as an investing thesis. Assume that no side has a monopoly on the full truth and ideas need to be balanced.

    We need stronger muscles.
    We need cardiovascular strength.
    And we don’t need to be caged for hours inside our cars.

  3. This is great. Explains why I feel extra sedentary in the Silicon Valley compared to when I’m in San Francisco.

  4. this is exactly right. Whenever I take the bus in HK, I strongly prefer to stand, which is fortunately an option in the new busses here. And on the days I drive, I always think about the trade offs between a 10 minute faster commute locked in my car seat and the longer commute where I can stand and “surf” on the bus. Sometimes time pressure wins, but I do prefer the bus if I have time.

  5. Really good post. How often would you say you go through the Foundation Training or Hillfit routines? Daily? For roughly how long? It’s hard to imagine a few minutes static hold can make up for all that desk-sitting. I am trying to incorporate hourly movements in my office – 10 squats or push-ups or side bends on the hour every hour. Slightly embarrassing in an open plan office in my heels and skirts …. but maybe it will catch on with my colleagues?!

  6. @Joanna – During this period I would engage in some form of HIT 2x a week. I did the Static Windmill on average 3x a week. That may not seem like a lot, but for the purposes of this post I was specifically targeting the glute muscles that go into disuse when we sit. I think it succeeded on that level.

    I see this as a 3 part solution:
    1- muscle preserving/building (Hillfit, Foundation, Static Windmill) 2-3x a week
    2- plenty of varied, low-intensity movement
    3- reduction of sitting duration

    What I learned is that just doing 1 and 2 is not enough.

  7. Welcome to the club. 🙂

    I don’t drive anymore (it was really hard on my butt when I did) but I used to sit in one position for a long time. I’m stiffer now and can’t do that, but I’m probably stiffer because I did do that for so long. It doesn’t help that the vast majority of chairs are too big for me, including adjustable ones. I’ve been a convert to standing work stations for a few years now, and it’s easier on my hips. I certainly don’t mind the extra muscle I got from standing either. My goal is to be able to sit in a squatting position with my heels on the floor, and to be able to sit cross-legged without anything complaining, and not have furniture at all. (I’m currently renting a furnished room and do all my sitting on my bed, but when I get my own place again next spring I hope to be floor-ready.) I never have any people over anyway.

    I think the best thing for people who sit a long time is to get up and walk around every 20 minutes or so. If you’re being a tourist, riding a bike would probably be better than driving (cheaper, too!), or stopping and getting out periodically to look around. Driving long distances is going to be hard no matter what, until they introduce driving standing up. I got very stiff on the Greyhound when I moved across country, even though I was able to shift position a lot.

  8. If sitting is bad for your health how come there’s benefits to meditating considering you sit for a long duration. Perhaps it’s the stress of driving especially when traffic is darn slow or someone holding up traffic. 🙂

    I used to sit a lot, I only took two breaks for meals which was only 10 to 15 minutes. I sat 12 hours straight daily yet I felt light and stress free. Mind you I was doing mindfulness.

    Usually when people do things while sitting maybe stressing them out. Watching tv, surfing the web etc, all these can be stress factors just like driving for quite long.

  9. @MikeTO – You are probably right that the meditation is superior, but I am skeptical that it wouldn’t come some metabolic cost. Perhaps a study of monks that doing sitting meditation versus those that do slow walking meditation? Then we would know which was more powerful: movement or mindfulness.

  10. @MAS I have read that a few monks that can heat their inner core temperature. Some of these monks can sit where they is freezing cold water yet they are able to stay warm. Sure they metabolism slowed however they were able to survive in pretty cold temperatures.
    There is some standing meditation exercises also however it seems sitting in most beneficial, even with the ones with some movements while sitting.

    http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/04.18/09-tummo.html

  11. I was getting a bit worried after seeing all of those posts mentioning Waze (not to mention disappointed that the product seems to be encouraging users to do more driving)!

    For me, living in SF had the opposite effect — parking, traffic, and public transportation were such messes that I found myself biking or walking everywhere. If you were spending more time in the East Bay or South Bay, I can see why a car would come in handy, though.

    After moving away about a year ago, I bought my first car in nine or so years, and I’ve found that my legs often start to cramp after thirty minutes of driving. Luckily I’ve been able to limit my trips to one every few weeks.

  12. Rita, Gawker Media isn’t the most objective place to go for information. They tend to cater to what people want to read, to get the page clicks.

    I think the thing is not only being in the same position (sitting, standing, whatever) for a long time, but also that people sit on chairs. That’s relatively new, something that arrived after people started wearing shoes all the time (which is hard on feet and makes it harder to stand and move around, especially with earlier versions of shoes). Traditionally, people stood, or squatted on the ground, or sat on the ground or floor a lot more, and we don’t do that. We sit in chairs, and that weakens glutes, shortens and tightens hip flexors and calves and throws our posture out, not to mention reduces our exercise.

    I found this article pretty thorough: http://www.eatmoveimprove.com/2009/11/shoes-sitting-and-lower-body-dysfunctions/

    Also, Stephen Robbins made a case for the link between shoes and sitting here: http://www.stevenrobbinsmd.com/publications/how-footwear-caused-humans-to-become-sedentary

    Your cat may sleep all day, but she probably sleeps in a position suited to her frame. She isn’t sitting on chairs with her legs dangling and her back straight (or slumped). You can wear shoes and sit all you like, but shoes and chairs need to be designed to go with the way our bodies are designed to work, not against it.

    Me, I’m wondering how long it will take to recover from decades of sitting. It’s going to take more than working my glutes, because of how tight other muscles are. I can’t even sit cross legged on a hard surface any more. Or sleep on my back. If I had the money I’d pay someone to work me over.

  13. @Anemone – Interesting comment. I’ve moved away from minimalist shoes in the last few years. I seemed to get the benefits early of having zero back pain, but over time I got knee/foot pain. It may have been unrelated. What I did find was the thin sole shoes wore out super fast and often cost more than those with a slighter thicker sole that lasted longer.

    I still wear super flat shoes in the gym. If I could find a rugged pair of flat shoes (not toe shoes – can’t do that) – at a fair price, I’d give it another shot.

  14. Shoes must work the same way as chairs – I mean, if chairs aren’t natural, then the surfaces upon which we place our feet aren’t natural either. People and animals walked in grass, across dirt, over some rocks and streams – less so on concrete, brick, etc. We now stand/walk on relatively less forgiving surfaces than before, thus necessitating a different requirement for foot and leg health. I understand that my Gawker reference may not have been the best, but there is something about the “sitting will kill you” headlines of more “reputable” sources that also seems more sensationalist than good science.

  15. Good post and comments!

    Have you tried Vivo barefoot shoes? I use them now. But as runners, gym and casual and even dinner wear.

    Not so expensive, good design and look fairly normal. Build quality could be better though.

  16. Agree with you. That’s why I only use five fingers sometimes when I work out. They are harder to put on and keep clean. Long time ago I used my Vibrams. Nowadays only Vivo Barefoot.

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