Combat Sitting: Simple Ways to Boost Your Healthspan

Q2 | May 2024

iStock Backstrain Working

Topic: Living to 100

Kathleen Peace CFA, CFP

May 27, 2024

Image used with permission: iStock/PrathanChorruangsak


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Combat Sitting: Simple Ways to Boost Your Healthspan

Q2 | May 2024

At Nexus, our Living to 100 campaign is about maximizing both lifespan and healthspan. While lifespan is the total number of years we’ll live, healthspan refers to the years we’ll live feeling our best and having the energy to do the things we enjoy. Focusing on healthspan is key – what's the point of living a long life if you can't enjoy it?

The Information Age and Our Bodies

We all know that staying active is key to extending our healthy years. But over millennia, increasing efficiencies have worked against us: Modern life has shifted the physical demands placed on our bodies compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Today, the average adult spends 11 hours a day interacting with technology, and much of that time is spent sitting. (Primate Change: How the World we Made is Remaking Us by Vybarr Cregan-Reid).

Exercise is crucial, but even a daily workout isn’t enough to counteract the negative effects of all the sitting we do while emailing, Zooming and scrolling. The solution? Regular ‘movement breaks’: According to a study by Columbia Medical Research Centre, just 5 minutes of movement every 30 minutes can significantly reduce the harmful effects of sitting (‘Rx for Prolonged Sitting: A Five Minute Stroll Every Half Hour’, Jan 2023, Columbia Medical Research Centre). Study participants took short walks every half hour and, as a result, experienced:

  • 60% lower blood sugar spikes after eating,
  • 4-5 points’ decrease in blood pressure, and
  • Lower fatigue, higher energy levels and better mood.

It sounds like a simple fix, but the practicalities of life can make this habit a tricky one to adopt. Read on to find out how sitting became our norm and how to increase the role movement plays in your daily routine.

 

“We used to die because we couldn’t find food, and now we die because we eat too much, and we can’t move.
Vybarr Cregan-Reid, Author/Professor, University of Kent

 

The Evolution of Our Bodies

Our ancestral female agriculturalists boasted upper arm bones almost 50% more dense than those of today’s Olympic rowers. (‘Body Electric’ podcast by NPR, Season 1, Episode 1). Shocking, right? While it’s no secret that our bodies have changed over time, the reasons behind our shift toward a more sedentary lifestyle are worth exploring. Professor Vybarr Cregan-Reid, author of ‘Primate Change: How the World We Made is Remaking Us”, offers this revealing summary of our evolution:

  • Version 1.0: Hunter-Gatherers (c.2.6 million – 10,000 BCE): Our Paleolithic bodies were built for movement – climbing, foraging, hunting and fishing. We were tall and lean, with a high activity rate and a diverse range of movements.
  • Version 2.0: Farmers (12,000 years ago): The agricultural revolution brought the most significant changes to our bodies. Easier access to food and water meant less daily movement. Domesticated livestock and horses further reduced physical exertion.
  • Version 3.0: Urbanites (mid-19th Century): Cities grew, and people moved from working outdoors in rural areas to urban factories. Jobs often involved long hours on their feet, little time in the fresh air and repetitive tasks that strained the body. At the same time, the mass production of chairs (among other furniture items) made them ubiquitous, ushering in the era of ‘sitting.’ Electricity and gas made life more efficient, but even so, many chores still needed physical effort (think of banging the life out of a rug to clean it vs. using a robovac today).
  • Version 4.0: Tech-obsessed (Present Day): Technology has reshaped our bodies again. Screens keep us glued to our desks and phones, reducing time outdoors (and our Vitamin D intake), social interaction, and calorie burning. In the 1840s, less than 1% of the workforce had sedentary jobs. Today, that number is a whopping 85%! (Body Electric podcast by NPR, Season 1, Episode 1). Despite the evidence that prolonged sitting increases chronic disease risk, negatively affects mood and shortens lifespan, sitting has become our default position.

Illustration: Research shows that as we progress technologically through each lifestyle revaluation,
our bones get increasingly thinner and more porous.”
(‘Primate Change: How the World We Made is Remaking Us’ by Vybarr Cregan-Reid)

 

Making Movement a Habit

Taking short walks every 30 minutes to combat our sitting habit sounds easy in theory (set an alarm, go for a stroll). But, busy schedules, getting “in the zone” at work, and even basic workplace etiquette (imagine getting up in the middle of a meeting for a walk!) can make consistent movement breaks difficult.

To help people incorporate movement breaks into their everyday lives despite these challenges, the “Body Electric” podcast and Columbia University Medical Center have teamed up for an interactive study with over 20,000 participants. The aim is to identify successful strategies for making movement breaks a regular habit (you can join the study here!).

The preliminary data reveals the following connection: The more participants move, the better they feel. In other words, the more frequent their movement breaks, the greater their improvement in mood and reduction in fatigue.

 

Strategies for Success

Here are some of the top strategies researchers identified that can help to increase our chances of making movement breaks a habit:

  • Double-Dip: Combine movement with other activities. Take multiple trips from your car to unload groceries, walk and talk with a colleague during coffee breaks, or pace around your office while taking phone calls.
  • Celebrate Your Progress: Track your movement breaks! If you enjoy ticking things off a list, keep a tally of your breaks with a star or checkmark. Seeing your progress can be a great motivator.
  • Low-Tech Reminders: Manually setting a timer is the most effective way to remember your breaks. While automated reminders from apps or smartwatches are convenient, they are easy to ignore. Setting the timer yourself makes each movement break feel more intentional.

Move More, Feel Better: The Takeaway

Designed for movement, our bodies are happier in motion. Simple changes, like incorporating regular movement breaks throughout the day, can improve our health and well-being. Whether it’s taking the stairs, pacing during calls, or setting a timer for mini-walks, there are many ways to “double-dip” and get things done while moving more. Make movement your medicine and invest in your healthspan. Remember, even small changes can lead to big results.

 

 

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