Sitting decreases your life expectancy: what you need to know

Kelly Starrett, who has a Ph.D. in physical therapy, is the author of “Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World.” It’s a real eye-opener, and has helped me address some of my own movement challenges.

I read about 150 books a year and last year the best book I read was “The Metabolic Theory of Cancer.” This year I would have to give that honor to Kelly’s book. I have read many books on posture and movement, but his was the best.

If you have a desk job, this book is a veritable gold mine of helpful guidance that can improve your health and well-being. Kelly is one of the leaders in the CrossFit movement and stresses the importance of proper body mechanics, both in and outside the gym.

His first book, “Becoming a Supple Leopard,” addresses biomechanical inadequacies that might increase your risk of injury.

“[A]s I was addressing football teams and soldiers, we were seeing the same sequel of problems — a lot of forward [leaning] head or neck, stiff upper back, and inability to put the arms over the head … lower back dysfunction, short hips and over striding,” Kelly says.

“What we realized [is that] most were engaged in an activity that went against physiology … [W]hat’s happening today, because of the changing environment, we’re sitting a lot more. We have a lot more technology … We commute more.

We’re making this very basic adaptation error, and that is we’re not moving enough. What’s interesting about the sitting versus standing conversation is it’s really the wrong conversation. The right conversation is moving versus not moving …

When we stand up, we [upregulate] the whole physical being. That really ends up being the most important conversations — bringing the consciousness to the fact that, as modern humans, we may not be able to move the way we were designed.”

Optional Versus Non-Optional Sitting

In “Deskbound,” Kelly quotes research from Dr. James Levine showing that for every hour you sit down, your life expectancy decreases by two hours. For comparison, every cigarette smoked reduces life expectancy by 11 minutes.

That means sitting down is far more hazardous to your health than smoking — a shocking revelation for most, I’m sure.

However, Kelly notes that you cannot simply replace sitting with standing. Your body was designed for full range of motion, and simply standing does not optimize your physiology either. Also, sitting CAN be beneficial, when done right. In other words, there’s a skill to sitting in a way that’s beneficial to health.

“Let’s just clean up our sitting hygiene,” he says. “Look at your sitting time, and divide your life into optional sitting and non-optional sitting …  

You may have to sit in a meeting or sit in your car — those things are non-optional. But the rest of it, you can really get a big upregulation and function just by ditching that optional sitting.”

Blocking Unwanted Behavior

In the video, you see Kelly sitting down. It appears as though he’s sitting on a couch, but this is actually an optical illusion. He’s sitting on the floor, and that is one of the strategies he presents in his book.

It’s not uncommon for people to sit for 13 hours a day, and the challenge is to replace sitting with movement, not simply standing.

“If anyone has ever had a job or they’ve had to stand for long periods of time, statically, it is brutal … Go to your local yoga class and ask for a good dose of tadasana; standing pose, standing meditation, and you’ll last two or three minutes before you start to burn and fatigue …  

It takes skill in standing, but how do we create an environment that reflects the physiology instead of making the physiology of the body conform to the environment?

When we address or teach about strength and conditioning, or about behaviors or patterns, we try to make what we call blocked behaviors, blocked patterns, where you don’t have to make a decision; the decision is made for you.

For example, when I come back after lunch and there’s no chair. Instead I go up to my standing moving station at my desk. I’m automatically going to do the right thing. I don’t have to make a decision about raising my desk or getting out of the chair …

[O]ne of the nice pieces about creating a movement-rich environment is that you automatically get these contextual signals and cues that say ‘I need to sit’ or ‘I need to work.’

So I’m sitting at a table cross-legged. What that does is it starts to give me more movement options. Now I’m taking my hips to a more full-range of motion, and it’s a break from the standing that I was doing earlier.”

The Sitting-Rising Test Predicts Mortality Risk

There’s a well-validated study showing that your ability to rise off the floor from a seated position can predict your risk for early mortality. (See video above for a demonstration.) If you have to use both hands and knees, or use something to help you get up off the floor, chances are you may be weak or have poor range of motion.

Historically, humans have sat on the ground. We’re supposed to be able to sit cross legged. We’re supposed to be able to work on the ground. By setting up your environment to facilitate sitting on the floor or an exercise ball rather than a chair, your working hours can be more conducive to improving health and well-being.

Changing the Way Schools View Movement

Movement is particularly important for kids, and Kelly is hard at work getting local schools to switch from sit-down desks to standing desks. Last year, his daughters attended the first all-standing/moving school in the world, located in Vallecito, San Rafael, California. Every child in that school now has a standup desk, appropriately height adjusted for each child. Each desk also has a “fidget bar” that swings back and forth, allowing the kids to remain in constant motion.

“What we know is that there’s a large genetic drive and genetic component to movement. Some people have a very large movement drive … We’ve probably been medicating some of our best, most driving movers because they moved and fidgeted and got into trouble …

Right now, for the first time in the history of our planet and certainly our nation, there are more obese Americans than non-obese Americans … diabetes is up 400 percent in the last 10 years. We’re seeing a whole kind of constellation of issues that come back to this one drive, which is we’re not moving enough. We’re not being human beings. We’re using the [body] wrong.

What’s been interesting about our experience is that in that school, we have 450 kids standing and moving … and all the metrics that are coming out … has seen achievement going up, has seen attention going up, has seen decreases in body mass index across kid populations. I mean, anything that’s sort of important to you as a parent … A standing, non-sitting intervention is a no-brainer.”

Join the Standup Kids Movement

Kelly’s initiative, called Standup Kids, has partnered with a number of corporations, giving about 30,000 children the opportunity to move more in school. They’ve also partnered with University of California Berkeley and the local county public health department to try to get more research done. This is really something that needs to spread like wildfire across the nation, if we want to have any hope of rescuing our children from chronic dysfunction.

“The problem is when we take these top-down health initiative approaches, it’s very bureaucratic and very difficult. And that’s the wrong approach. Ultimately, we would love the state and national government, the federal government, to be able to support bottom-up initiatives. We realized that it was on us, ultimately, to start with our own daughter’s classroom.

When we originally made this pitch to our principal three years ago — because [first] we did a little pilot classroom, then we did a few more — is that we were going to have to just make the case. My wife is an attorney, she had prepared a brief to go before the Supreme Court and in two seconds, our principal was like, ‘Yes. Totally. This makes perfect sense.’ There was no resistance. The resistance primarily comes from our inability to raise funds fast enough to meet the current demand …

Finland just put out a study that said their recommendation for kids is to get three hours of exercise a day, plus sunlight, plus all these other things. We’ve seen recess get hacked, most schools don’t have PE. So we’re making this big, big, big error … If you’re interested in this idea … go talk to [your child’s] teacher, and then through, there are templates and resources for you to initiate a conversation about changing that single classroom.”

The data is also showing that children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) cannot learn without moving. They need to be able to fidget constantly. The standup classroom allows these kids to excel in ways they’ve not been permitted to before. 

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