- Sitting is as bad as smoking,
- Poor movement can be a sign of potential health issues,
- Exercise is not as important as having activity as part of your everyday life.
“I believe that the good lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats and I’m damned if I’m going to use mine running up and down a street.” – Neil Armstrong (on jogging.)
A clinical review from doctors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggests that mobility limitations are a litmus test for healthy aging and urges primary care physicians to take a more aggressive role in ascertaining the mobility of their patients. They suggest that doctors should ask all patients two questions: for health or physical reasons, do you have difficulty climbing up 10 steps or walking 400m at a brisk pace; and because of underlying health or physical reasons, have you modified the way you climb 10 steps or walk 400m?
Can you sit on the floor, then get up again without using your hands, knees or elbows? Go on, try it right now. The physical inability to do that, or struggle to barely do that, has been cited as an indicator of potential heart problems. Such is the inter-connectedness of our physical systems. Muscular strength, balance, bone density – none of these things are our hearts, but they can help or hurt our heart, depending on how we maintain them and they give us constant information on how things are going inside.
Dr Steven Blair in studies with both the Cooper Clinic in Dallas and the University of South Carolina tracked thousands of people over dozens of years. They determined that fitness levels (not fatness levels) are significant predictors of mortality. Poor fitness accounts for sixteen percent of all deaths. Move it or lose it. It’s never too late to start to reap benefits but it’s always too soon to stop. Some people say that they’re too old to exercise but the truth is that they’re too old not to exercise.
A University of Hong Kong study made similar findings. Twenty percent of deaths in people over 35 could be attributed to physical inactivity, greater than the risk caused by smoking. (Of course, that doesn’t bode well for smokers who are also physically inactive.) Physical inactivity increases risks for the following causes of death:
Cause Men Women
Cancer Up 45% Up 28%
Respiratory Illness Up 92% Up 75%
Heart disease Up 52% Up 28%
Modern medicine is amazing but can it be improved on, or even replaced, in some instances? A study published in the British Medical Journal by scientists from the London School of Economics, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and Stanford University reviewed the results of 305 previous trials with over three hundred thousand people to see if physical activity was as effective as drugs at preventing death among people with coronary heart disease, rehabilitation from stroke, treatment for heart failure and prevention of diabetes. “There was no difference between exercise and drug interventions for the people with coronary heart disease and for the prevention of diabetes.” You don’t hear about this because pharmaceutical companies can’t sell you a bottle of walking. Although, one of the authors Huseyin Naci was at pains to stress, “The results of our study by no means imply that people should stop taking their medications, especially without consulting their doctors.”
The BBC reported a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that followed 3,500 healthy people at or around retirement age. Those who took up exercise were three times more likely to remain healthy over the next eight years than their sedentary peers. Exercise cut the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
The University of Bath studied a group of 26 healthy young men. All exercised regularly. None were obese. Baseline health assessments, including biopsies of fat tissue, confirmed that each had normal metabolisms and blood sugar control, with no symptoms of incipient diabetes. The scientists then asked all their volunteers to impair their great health by doing a lot of sitting and eating way too much. But half the volunteers had to do a hard-out 45 minute treadmill session a day. Other than that session, they lay around all the rest of the day.
The New York Times reported the results: After only a week, the young men who had not exercised displayed a significant and unhealthy decline in their blood sugar control, and, equally worrying, their biopsied fat cells seemed to have developed a malicious streak. Those cells, examined using sophisticated genetic testing techniques, were now overexpressing various genes that may contribute to unhealthy metabolic changes and underexpressing other genes potentially important for a well-functioning metabolism.
But the volunteers who had exercised once a day, despite comparable energy surpluses, were not similarly afflicted. Their blood sugar control remained robust, and their fat cells exhibited far fewer of the potentially undesirable alterations in gene expression than among the sedentary men.
“Exercise seemed to completely cancel out many of the changes induced by overfeeding and reduced activity,” said Dylan Thompson, a professor of health sciences at the University of Bath and senior author of the study.
Fitness for health isn’t about gyms and jogging as much as it is about a physically active lifestyle that exerts strong system-wide effects on our body. Rather than exercising for the sake of it, make changes to your lifestyle and environment that encourages you to move. Ride a bicycle. Walk. Park your car further away. Use the stairs. Chances are, you’ll sustain that physical activity longer than most people sustain their gym membership.
The ‘runner’s high’ that we experience when we do break through the initial tough bit of exercise is due to brain chemicals called endocannabinoids. (Yes, it’s one of those cannabinoids…) Some suppose this was an evolutionary outcome to support us back in the day when if we wanted dinner, we had to chase it and catch it. And it might be why stoners get the munchies.
People in western economies sit 9.3 hours a day and that doesn’t include sleeping.
Physical inactivity leads to muscle and bone weakness, immune system compromises, narrowing of arteries, metabolic decline, central nervous system compromise and general frailty. Sitting can be as bad as smoking. They should print warnings on couches and office chairs. Even if the chair is perfectly primed by a professional Ergonomist and made safe from any posture or health and safety issue, the very act of being sedentary and sitting for long periods is not what humans are suited for. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Between 1945 and 1995, the average adult daily calorie expenditure fell 800 calories. So the amount of moving we do each day has reduced by 800 calories, thanks to cars and machines and washing machines and so forth. 800 calories is the equivalent of a ten mile walk! In 1960, 50% of jobs required at least moderate physical activity. Today it is only 20%. Two thirds of desk workers eat lunch at their desk.
The Mayo Clinic takes credit for labelling a phenomenon it calls ‘Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis’ (NEAT.) I call it moving. Doing stuff burns calories. You don’t have to join a gym, swim an ocean or run marathons religiously. Make a bed, walk the stairs and stand while talking on the phone. They’re also licensing devices to be NEAT-certified to measure and motivate people, including special underwear. I presume the underwear is more about the measuring than the motivation?
We need to develop lifelong patterns of enjoyable activity.
Avoid, prevent or lessen fall risks with balance exercises. These don’t have to be yoga or tai-chi, though you’d probably benefit from doing that with a group socially. You can do them at home while watching TV to lessen the negative effects of being a couch potato. Here’s a few:
1. Walk an imaginary line on the floor heel-to-toe while not looking at your feet, just like a cop suspecting you of drink-driving in a movie in the 1970s,
2. Stand in that karate kid stance when he had the broken leg (but you don’t have to leap and kick a blond guy in the head),
3. Get off and on the couch using only one leg. Change legs. Repeat. (Don’t go and get Dorritos between times – not even the new buffalo wings flavour when you got that 3-for-$5 deal at the supermarket.)
According to Oscar Franco of Erasmus MC University, walking thirty minutes a day for five days a week can add eighteen months to your life.
Sex is like cellphone credit – use it or lose it. Some research reckons sex three times a week can add two years to your life, bolstering natural levels of DHEA, HGH, immunoglobin-A and Oxytocin. Oxytocin is not only a painkiller but has some psychological benefits I’ll expand on later in the ‘Love’ section. “Men who ejaculate at least seven times a week in their 20s were found to be over a third less likely to develop aggressive prostate cancer in later life than men who only muster three,” says study author Professor Graham Giles from the Cancer Council Victoria. It is best if it is real sex with a real person though. Orgasms are healthy however you come by them but one-on-one consensual sex maximising skin-on-skin contact yields four hundred times the positive hormones etc. To try and achieve that by yourself, well, who has the time?
One book described orgasms using computer lingo, as a means of “rebooting your brain.” Well, every time you ring a help desk, the first question is always, “Is it turned on?”
Couples who have sex at least four times a week look more than 10 years younger than the average adult, concluded a Royal Edinburgh Hospital study. “Pleasure derived from sex is a crucial factor in preserving youth due to the release of adrenaline, dopamine, and norepinephrine,” says Neuropsychologist Dr David Weeks, who conducted the study. “Plus, sex triggers human growth hormone which combats free radicals from pollution, and exposure to other damaging environmental factors. This helps preserve skin cell walls and relax muscles which could otherwise cause wrinkles.”
A study in the journal Biological Psychology found men who had had sex the previous night responded better to stressful situations. All down to the soothing effect of another person’s touch, says Professor Stuart Brody, sexual psychologist from the University of Paisley. “A great deal of research has shown touch has a naturally calming effect,” says Brody. “And being touched by someone you care about significantly increases that effect.” Apart from the pleasurable sensation, researchers found touch actually reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
UK Men’s Health Magazine will spell out the sexual positions and activities that will optimise norepinephrine production. At least, I think so. My friend told me.
The body’s physical and mental systems interact. For example, aerobic exercise stimulates the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which supports the brain’s existing and new synapses and neurons. Columbia University’s Medical Centre in New York ran a study that found that the risk of Alzheimers is reduced by a third in the physically active. Add to that physical activity a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, and that risk reduces by a total of 60%.
A study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Epidemiology conducted by the American Cancer Society’s observed thousands of people between 1993 and 2006. They concluded, “Sitting for extended periods is a health risk as insidious as smoking or over-exposure to the sun.” Melbourne’s International Diabetes Institute found that even two hours daily exercise does not make up for the other twenty two hours if they’re motionless. “Blood levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) were twice as high in people who spent four or more hours a day in front of a screen than people spending two or less.”
I interviewed Dr Grant Schofield of AUT University’s Human Potential centre. I’ve included more excerpts of his passionate smarts in the ‘Eat’ section. In walking into his office in the Millennium Institute of Sport and Health on Auckland’s North Shore, the first thing that struck me was the view of the athletics tracks outside his office window – a great metaphor for moving if ever there was one. The second thing I noticed was the furniture, as I made the traditional foray to find a seat to continue our chat. I didn’t recognise any of it.
My experience with workplace ergonomic furniture came from managing a call centre where the mission was to get people seated as comfortably as possible, whilst minimising the potential for any physical harms that might occur from poor angles and heights and such of the furniture. I never knew then that the very act of prolonged sitting was, itself, harmful.
Grant proudly described his team’s self-made furniture as ‘UN-ergonomic. The stools, if they could be called that, were boxy and the seat component was angled. It was not only not designed to be sat in for long periods, it was purposefully designed to encourage people to get off it frequently. The height and layout of the ‘desks’ makes standing very practical and the overall layout provokes efficient movement.
Later on in the ‘Work’ section, I’ll suggest a concept called ‘Walking Meetings.’ Having a running track outside would be ideal for those. But not everyone has a running track at their work, nor purpose-built UN-ergonomic furniture. If that’s you, your need to move is going to have to be self-managed. But if you can re-jig your physical environment, it’s proven to be the most effective way to instigate changes and maintain the new wiser behaviours.
If you truly feel that you’re absolutely chained to your desk then there’s always the option of ‘Deskercise.’ Here are a few variations, using your chair or desk as tools for movement and that won’t get your ‘LA Law’ fashion work clothes all sweaty:
1. Incline push-ups against desk,
2. Tricep dips with chair behind you,
3. Standing up off your chair using only one leg,
4. Alternate knee-rises while seated,
5. Plyometrics – push sideways against the interior walls of your desk like you’re The Hulk trying to break your legs out of prison.
If you need safety warning about your chair being on wheels and so forth, then I should probably tell you:
· Coffee is hot,
· Don’t use that new hairdryer while in the bath
An Australian study of 12,000 people found that, after the age of 25, each hour of TV watching decreased life expectancy by 22 minutes. A cigarette only reduced it by 11 minutes! Best not smoke while watching TV then, that’s for sure. Again, it’s not TV per se that’s the problem, it’s the associated social disconnection, mindless eating and sitting motionless. Average six hours of that kind of TV watching a day and it’ll take five years off your life. How can you add activity to your TV watching? Suggestions include wobbleboards, exercycles, light dumbbells and resistance bands. Certainly the latter can be stored wherever the remote control lives and be easily accessed for a few plyometrics with the coffee table. Even fidgeting is better than sitting still.
‘Breaking Bad’ was a classic and well-produced TV show. At fifty or so episodes, was it worth losing 18 hours of my life on top of the time I spent watching it? ‘Geordie Shore’ is definitely not.
The Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging found some good news for couch potatoes who never bother to start any physical efforts because they know they’ll never run a marathon. The biggest gains in health from physical activity are not accrued at the top end of the fitness scale. The biggest gains are from the first steps – from being a zero-effort couch potato to being a 10-minute-a-day walker. Oh and get some good shoes – they lessen any risk of inflammation to your joints and back.
You don’t need to start triathlons or join a gym, although the social aspects of that and the routine might be helpfully encouraging for some. They are for me. My weekly basketball game is highly social and physically akin to my caveman ancestors’ sporadic hunting outbursts.
You do need to crank out thirty to sixty minutes of activity five times a week that combines aerobic work, balance and muscle conditioning. Try deliberately inconveniencing yourself so you have to go downstairs to fetch the laundry basket. If you have to go get a latté, go to the 2nd closest café. Park further away so there is at least a bit of a stroll at the start and end of your work day. Get off your butt every twenty minutes and try to automate that. We’re all tethered to smartphones these days so have a regular alarm set to vibrate to remind you to move.
This does make a difference when it all adds up:
Average daily Steps Obesity Rate
USA 5117 34%
Australia 9695 16%
Studies show that a mere twenty minutes of moderate activity significantly improves your mood in the subsequent twelve hours. Find others to be supportive and move with you.
I’m a latecomer to, but a fan of, the benefits of being a gardener:
· 45 minutes of gardening will burn the same number of calories as a 30 minute aerobics class,
· Better sleepers,
· Lower risk of osteoporosis,
· Lower risk of diabetes,
· Improved coordination, balance and strength means fewer accidents and better recovery from falls in later life,
· The fresh food you grow is the best source of nutrients you’ll ever get,
· It’s a project with purpose that multiple generations within a family can share and bond over,
· Save money and spare money is always good for health,
· Reduced anxiety,
· Sense of purpose,
· A routine / ritual and your body and mind like those,
· No jogging required.
Gardening and yoga are great. Do yoga in a garden. With others.
Learn how to move people towards change at 2dangerousthingsayear.com
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