Is sitting the new smoking?

Imagine we are someone who goes to the gym every day.  We are consistent about it.  Every day of every week or every month of every year we go to the gym and work out for an hour.

Wow!  We would be an exemplar of good health, right?

Not so fast, philosopher Brian Johnson tells us.

Sure.  Working out one hour everyday consistently is a very good thing.  

But, if we spend our remaining waking hours sitting in a chair, our overall health may still be subpar, Brian tells us.

1: “Sitting is the new smoking,” states the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. James Levine.  In his book Get Up! he details his decades of health research on the negative impact of being sedentary.

“Our body was designed to live in gravity as a perpetual motion machine,” writes NASA scientist Joan Vernikos.  When astronauts are launched into space, the moment gravitational pull disappears, their bodies begin changing dramatically and quickly.  Their bone density declines, their aerobic capacity shrinks, and their blood plasma changes.  Within days and weeks, they age the equivalent of years and decades.  

The changes are similar to what we experience by being sedentary here on earth, Joan writes in her book Sitting Kills, Moving Heals Spending our days sitting in a chair accelerates aging.

2: Brian shares the information above in his Optimize Coach class which I had the privilege of taking last year.  One of my goals for 2021 was to put this knowledge into action by “optimizing my workday.”

This week we’ve been exploring Brian’s formula for self-mastery.

Self-Mastery = Willpower + Habits + Algorithms.

Today, we’ll look at both the theory around the benefits of movement as well as the practice of using Brian’s self-mastery formula to create new, healthy habits.

Imagine a smaller circle within a larger circle, Brian suggests.  The smaller circle is exercise.  The larger circle is movement.  

We can be active for one hour a day by exercising, as in the example above, but still be sedentary.

There are tremendous benefits to exercising regularly.  Exercise is one of the three areas Brian suggests we focus on to optimize our physical well-being.

But, we also need to find ways to be active throughout the day.

Back in our cavemen days, we were active eight hours a day, including two hours of moderate to vigorous exercise.

How much moderate to vigorous exercise does the average American adult get today?

10 minutes!

What can we do to combat this trend?

Brian suggests we pay attention to “micro-movements,” the second area he suggests we focus on to improve our physical well-being.  The research suggests we allow ourselves no more than twenty minutes of sitting without standing up and moving our bodies.  Brian keeps a 1,000 second timer (about 16-minutes) to remind him to consistently get up and move.

Periodically during his day, Brian does sets of burpees.  His goal each day is 100 burpees.    

The third area Brian focuses on is walking.  Numerous studies show the number of steps we get everyday is correlated with our physical and metal well-being.  Those who take at least 6,500 steps a day are less likely to suffer from depression.  Note: the average American takes 4,500 steps a day.

Other research suggests that people who live the longest are not runners, but walkers and hikers.

The other big benefit of walking?

It aids our thinking.  “I have walked myself into my best thoughts,” Soren Kierkegaard said.  Darwin, Kant, and Aristotle were all known for walking and thinking or talking with colleagues.

3: There’s a challenge I like in the saying: If you read the book, and don’t apply the knowledge, is it any different from not having read the book?

So, having participated in Brian’s Optimize Coach course, as part of my “Ten for 2021” goals for the year, I challenged myself to optimize my workday and put some of Brian’s ideas into action using his self-mastery formula.

I aimed to use my “willpower wisely to install habits that run on autopilot.”

My reality was I spend the vast majority of my time sitting in a chair looking at a computer screen.  Even more so working from home as a result of the pandemic as I no longer even walk to a colleague’s office or conference room for meetings. 

So, step one was to borrow one of Brian’s ideas and start doing burpees.  Turns out these are challenging!  I quickly learned 100 burpees was not going to happen and decided to aim for 40 – five sets of eight.  

Understanding how habits are formed, I knew I needed a “trigger” to prompt me to do this consistently.  At PCI, we get an email with an update on that day’s performance every two hours – at 9 am, 11 am, 1 pm, 3 pm, and 5 pm.  I decided I would use that as my reminder to do a set of burpees.  

Next, I decided to use my standing desk at least three times each day.  I had purchased a Veridesk last year but rarely used it.  So, again understanding triggers, I decided to stand for any meeting where I wasn’t taking a lot of notes.

A third new practice is to take a 15-minute walk each day with my wife Carey.  Each morning we find a time that will work that day and we make it happen.  This habit has been my favorite.  As often is the case, a habit that helps in one area of our lives (in this case, health) also benefits another area (relationships!).  

Finally, I’ve used “habit stacking” to build new habits in other areas of my life.  Habit stacking refers to adding additional habits immediately before or after other habits.  Two of my other goals for the year are to pray and connect with God throughout my day and drink more water.  So I do these actions immediately before and after my burpees. 

I’m also interested in paying more attention to how I’m feeling throughout my day so during our walk and at lunch, Carey and I share a one-word feeling or emotion to describe that moment.

All of these actions required willpower and tracking at first, but in time and through repetition, they are becoming habits that run on autopilot.  When I forget or don’t follow through as I’d like, I’m working on using Brian’s advice to show myself some grace and simply recommit and start back up again.
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Reflection: How much time am I spending sitting each day? What’s something I’m already doing that could be a trigger to stack a new habit?

Action: Do it. Today!

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