New book reflects on the condition of Homo Sedentarius

If you're looking for a comprehensive yet accessible summary of the latest research on "the sitting disease", get your hands on Dr. James A. Levine's Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It. The author, whose work at the Mayo Clinic focuses on obesity solutions and the benefits of active classrooms for children, is at the helm of the global anti-chair movement. He also inspired popular use of the treadmill desk when he created a makeshift one in his lab.

Get Up! is a compelling argument for rethinking the modern lifestyle. You can expect to learn about the rise of chair addiction - that is, "the constant need we have developed to sit" as well as its effects and some of the innovative solutions Levine and his team have come up with to get organisations out of their chairs. 

The premise is this: the human body is meant to move (NOT sit) most of the time. We are designed to be upright and the goal of sitting, says Levine, is to give our bodies a break from standing. Humans have only sat for about 200 years, since the onset of industrialization and urbanization. Yet currently the average person sits for about 13 hours daily - not hard to believe if you take into account sitting at the office and at meals, commuting by vehicle, and reclining in front of the TV or surfing the Net each evening. 

Understanding NEAT

Levine's 2009 book, Move a Little, Lose a Lot was the first to really bring home to a mainstream audience the health consequences of a sedentary, chair-based lifestyle (diabetes, obesity, heart disease... find an exhaustive list here.

He also introduced the concept of non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT), or "the calorie burn of your daily routine". NEAT is unrelated to your exercise routine - regular trips to the gym are great for many reasons, but they won't undo the consequences of excessive sitting; i.e. the only real cure for the sitting disease is to sit less. It's no surprise to learn that the key predictor of your NEAT score is your job. According to Levine, active work can expend as much as 2000 more calories a day than non-active work.

Levine's research also reveals that those with a powerful NEAT "switch" i.e. their bodies insist on keeping them dynamic during the day - are less prone to gaining fat than those with a weak NEAT switch. (Study participants with a strong NEAT switch who were fed an extra 1,000 calories a day did not put on weight. The others did.) However, before you start despairing over your genetic fate, consider this: consciously breaking the cycle of sitting - by getting up - can kick your NEAT switch into gear; i.e. it’s a positive reinforcing mechanism. 

This is about far more than weight or health consequences...

Levine's own experience of what he calls "the cycle of sad sitting" adds a personal touch to the book (though it could do without some of his rants against The Establishment). Post-divorce, and after his ex-wife and kids departed for the UK, he found himself in a severe depression. He lost interest in his work, his hobbies, ignored his treadmill desk, and spent most of his time chair-bound. "The chair is the inevitable home of the sad," he concludes, "... [It] becomes the depressive's sanctuary."

He also found that sitting may further increase depression. Movement is key to overcoming depression, but when the brain adapts to sitting, it sends fewer signals to the body to move, and the activity centre shrinks. The result: more sitting, more sadness. With professional help, Levine was able to break the cycle and a key part of his treatment was to get up. 

For Levine, sedentariness is a social malaise. "Sedentary living etches away at our very essence," he writes. The spring in our step has vanished. We sit in our cubicles alone, blue and sad. Our chairs have become islands of isolation."

His rallying cry to each of us, to our organisations, to our societies, is extremely persuasive: Get up... NOW... and OFTEN! 

Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) is available online from Exclusives.co.za for R214 (paperback only) and from Kalahari.com for R224 (paperback only). Find it on Audible.com for $20.97.*
* Prices correct at time of being published


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