Most people, including me, spend a large portion of each day in a seated position. It’s hard to avoid these days, as computer work predominates, and most also spend many precious hours each week commuting to and from work.
Interestingly, a growing body of evidence suggests that sitting in and of itself is an independent risk factor for poor health and premature death—even if you exercise regularly.
An increasingly sedentary lifestyle has led to a steady increase in a number of health problems, including:
While these disorders were historically associated with advancing age, they now affect increasing numbers of people well before middle-age. Even children are falling victim.
In the video above, Dr. Joan Vernikos,1 former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, presents a scientific explanation for why sitting has such a dramatic impact on your health, and what you can do about it.
In another words, she was one of the primary doctors assigned to keep the astronauts from deteriorating in space, and what she found has profound implications for each and every one of us.
You might think, like I did, that if you had a phenomenal exercise program that you wouldn’t have to worry about prolonged sitting. But nothing could be further from the truth.
In order to figure out why regular exercise does not appear to compensate for the negative effects of prolonged sitting, some of her research focused on finding out what type of movement is withdrawn by sitting.
The Gravity of the Situation…
What she discovered was nothing short of astounding. “Standing was more effective than walking,” she says. And, it wasn’t how long you were standing, but how many times you stood up that made the difference. In conclusion, she discovered that it is the change in posture that is the most powerful, in terms of having a beneficial impact on your health.
In a nutshell, your body needs perpetual motion to function optimally. As Dr. Vernikos states, the good news is that there are virtually unlimited opportunities for movement throughout the day.
“The key to lifelong health is more than just traditional gym exercise once a day, three to five times a week,” she says. “The answer is to rediscover a lifestyle of constant, natural low-intensity non-exercise movement that uses the gravity vector throughout the day.”
Some of the examples she lists include housecleaning, stirring a pot of pasta sauce, rolling dough, gardening, hanging clothes to dry, dancing… the list is endless, because it covers the entire spectrum of movements you engage in during daily life. Interestingly, recent research2, 3 has also found that those who engage in community gardening projects have considerably lower body mass index (BMI) than non-gardeners. Overall, female community gardeners were 46 percent less likely to be overweight or obese than the average woman in their neighborhood, and men who gardened were 62 percent less likely to be overweight or obese than their non-gardening neighbors.
The problem is that our modern society and our reliance on technology has reduced or eliminated many of these opportunities for low-intensity movement and replaced it with sitting. Instead of walking across the street to talk to your best friend, you send them a text while slumped on the couch. Some people even text other family members inside the same house instead of getting up and walking into the next room! All of this sloth-like inactivity adds up.
The answer then, as Dr. Vernikos states, is to reintroduce these opportunities for movement. Part of the mechanism that makes non-strenuous, posture-shifting movement so effective is that it engages what she refers to as the gravity vector. The less you move, the less you use gravity, and gravity, it turns out, is your lifeline.
I’ve previously written about the health benefits of Acceleration Training, or Whole Body Vibration Training, in which you perform exercises on a vibrating platform such as the Power Plate. Acceleration Training works by increasing the force of gravity on your body—which is at the heart of issue, according to Dr. Vernikos.
To a lesser degree, a mini trampoline will also increase the G forces on your body and provide similar, yet less extreme, benefits. A mini trampoline or rebounder subjects your body to gravitational pulls ranging from zero at the top of each bounce to 2 to 3 times the force of gravity at the bottom, depending on how high you jump. Some of the benefits rebounding offers include circulating oxygen and nutrients to tissues and organs, and promoting increased muscle strength.
Mounting Evidence Indicts Sitting as Independent Risk Factor for Poor Health
In recent years, researchers have taken a serious look at the effects of inactivity, and have repeatedly found that not moving or engaging in very limited-range movements for extended periods of time has a profoundly negative impact on health and longevity. For example, one study, published last year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine,4 concluded that adults who spend an average of six hours a day in front of the TV will reduce their life expectancy by just under 5 years, compared to someone who does not watch TV.
Again, it’s a matter of allowing technology to severely limit your opportunity for regular movement. If you weren’t watching TV, what would you do? Unless you’re sitting down reading, chances are you’d be doing something that requires you to move your body.
Another recent analysis5 of 18 studies (which in total included nearly 800,000 people), found that those who sat for the longest periods of time were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sat the least. And, while prolonged sitting was linked to an overall greater mortality risk from any cause, the strongest link was to death due to diabetes. According to lead researcher Thomas Yates, MD:6
“Even for people who are otherwise active, sitting for long stretches seems to be an independent risk factor for conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease.”
A 2009 study7 highlighted much of the recent evidence linking sitting with biomarkers of poor metabolic health, showing how total sitting time correlates with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other prevalent chronic health problems—even if you exercise regularly. According to the authors:
“Even if people meet the current recommendation of 30 minutes of physical activity on most days each week, there may be significant adverse metabolic and health effects from prolonged sitting — the activity that dominates most people’s remaining ‘non-exercise’ waking hours.”
In other words, even if you’re fairly physically active, riding your bike to work or hitting the gym four or five days a week — you may still succumb to the effects of too much sitting if the majority of your day is spent behind a desk or on the couch.
Counteracting the Ill Effects of Sitting, Using Foundation Training
While sitting down is not the only thing that can cause trouble (adopting any particular posture for long periods of time can slow down your circulatory system), sitting is one of the most pervasive postures in modern civilizations. So how can you increase your activity levels if you have a fulltime “desk job,” as so many of us do these days?
One of the things I do to compensate for the time I spend sitting each day is to regularly do Foundation exercises developed by a brilliant chiropractor, Eric Goodman. These exercises also address the root cause of most low back pain, which is related to weakness and imbalance among your posterior chain of muscles. It is easily argued that these imbalances are primarily related to sitting. I recently interviewed Dr. Goodman about his techniques, so to learn more, you can check out that interview.
Below are two video demonstrations: “The Founder,” which helps reinforce proper movement while strengthening the entire back of your body, and “Adductor Assisted Back Extension,” which will teach you how to properly extend your spine.
Besides “disengaging from the gravity vector,” when you sit, your head and shoulders drop forward, and your hip flexors and abdomen shorten. This misalignment is a major cause of chronic pains. Every exercise included in Foundation Training lengthens the front of your body, which is over-tightened, and strengthens the back of your body, which will help you stand tall and move with strength and flexibility. I do these exercises daily and it is a great tool to build a stronger and more stable low back. As explained by Dr. Goodman:
“The place to start is learning how to hinge effectively. Learn how your hamstrings, lower back, and glutes are designed to work and stretch together. Once that part is in place, you can then advance to all the exercises that build upon that foundation, that build upon The Founder exercise.”
Grounding or Earthing—Another Lost Factor Robbing You of Good Health
Grounding, described in the simplest of terms, is simply walking barefoot on the earth. When your body is directly connected to the earth, via your bare feet, a transfer of free electrons from the ground into your body takes place. These free electrons are a very potent source of antioxidants, which are responsible for the clinical observations from grounding experiments, such as:
- Thinning of your blood
- Beneficial changes in heart rate
- Decreased skin resistance
- Decreased levels of inflammation
It’s thought that the influx of free electrons from the earth’s surface help to neutralize free radicals and reduce both acute and chronic inflammation, which is at the root of many health conditions and accelerated aging. As written in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine:
“It is well established, though not widely known, that the surface of the earth possesses a limitless and continuously renewed supply of free or mobile electrons as a consequence of a global atmospheric electron circuit. Wearing shoes with insulating soles and/or sleeping in beds that are isolated from the electrical ground plane of the earth have disconnected most people from the earth’s electrical rhythms and free electrons.
…A variety of… benefits were reported, including reductions in pain and inflammation. Subsequent studies have confirmed these earlier findings and documented virtually immediate physiologic and clinical effects of grounding or earthing the body.”
The simplest way to ground is to walk barefoot outside. The ideal location for doing so is on the beach, close to or in the water, as seawater is a great conductor. Your body also contains mostly water, so it creates a good connection. A close second would be a grassy area, especially if it’s covered with dew, which is what you’d find if you walk early in the morning. Concrete is a good conductor as long as it hasn’t been sealed; painted concrete does not allow electrons to pass through very well. Materials like asphalt, wood, and typical insulators like plastic or the soles of your shoes, will not allow electrons to pass through and are not suitable for barefoot grounding.
Studies suggest that benefits such as pain relief and stress reduction may occur in just 30-80 minutes of barefoot time a day. This can obviously be a challenge during the winter, or if you live in an urban area without easy access to parks or other barefoot-friendly surfaces, so the other option is to use a grounding or Earthing pad, which allows you to get the benefits of the Earth’s electrons even if you’re indoors, especially when you’re sleeping. I use one myself, especially when I travel by plane, as air travel is a suspected cause of weakening bio-electric currents.
Use Your Body the Way it was Designed
Like physical movement, walking barefoot outside is a grossly neglected foundational practice that you can easily correct. You just have to take the time to do it. Avoiding sitting for long periods of time may at first seem “impossible” if you commute to a fulltime desk job, but really, all you need to do is alter the way you work and travel in small ways.
I plan on interviewing Dr. Vernikos in the near future, but I watched all her videos and she was really clear that standing every 10 to 15 minutes could easily compensate for the majority of the damage from sitting. I look forward to listening to her for more details in our interview.
So stand up at regular frequent intervals, about 40 times a day if you can. Also, shift your position and pay careful attention to yourposture. Incorporate Foundation Training, and instead of parking yourself in front of the TV at night, consider doing something else, or at the very least engage in some minor activity while the TV is on. Whenever you can, take off your shoes and connect to the Earth—and while you’re at it, bare some skin to take advantage of the many health benefits sun exposure can provide.
Dr. Vernikos’ research is powerful evidence that many of the health problems people suffer today are linked to modern lifestyle modifications that are incompatible with optimal biological functioning. So the answer is quite simply to revert back to a lifestyle that incorporates natural movement. Using your body the way it was designed is the most powerful way to optimize your health. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is another example of this. This type of Peak Fitness exercise mimics the way ancient hunter-gatherers used their bodies, and research has again and again confirmed that HIIT outperforms traditional aerobic cardio exercise.