2014’s Best Fitness Lesson: Get off the Butt

It seems that, every year, there is some pivotal shift in the health/wellness/fitness landscape. “No fat” morphs into “eat good fats”; yesterday’s Jazzercise is today’s CrossFit. 2014 was no different. The change is both ordinary and revolutionary — how we look at sitting.

For most of my 30s and 40s, I lived in a house with three flights of stairs in a supremely hilly neighborhood. My simple day-to-day activities involved quite a bit of up and down movement. Because I freelanced, working out of the home office, I scheduled workouts whenever they fit into my day. Often, I got multiple sessions because a child’s extracurricular evening activity was an excellent opportunity for a short run or evening walk with the dog. So, in addition to my planned workouts, I moved constantly throughout the day.

As I approached my 50s, my husband and I moved into a one-story house in a relatively flat area of town. I took a desk job; my workouts got pushed to early morning, what I could fit in before heading to the office, often from my home for maximum convenience. Once at work, it was hard to move anywhere — duties kept me chained to my computer, stress kept me hunched over and focused — and exhaustion made me drop evening workouts. My daily motion came in one big early a.m. push and then stopped. Despite my best efforts, my weight increased. I felt terrible (physically and mentally).

Sitting is the New Smoking

In January of 2014, articles began to appear citing studies pointing a finger at a likely culprit for my burgeoning belly: sitting. According to a recent article on WebMD (“Sitting Your Life Away?”), research on sitting has picked up in the last five years. It’s been linked to problems such as high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, and too much belly fat, which in turn give rise to serious health issues.

However, the link between obesity and sitting is not direct. According to the article, Barry Braun, PhD, study author and director of University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Energy Metabolism Laboratory, posited this question: “Are people obese because they sit too much, or do they sit too much because they are obese?”

Researchers at The University of Texas’s School of Public Health wondered about the correlation between training habits and sitting; in 2013, they released a study that examined the habits of 218 marathoners and half marathoners. It turns out that, though the group had a median 6.5 hours per week of training (making them highly active), they also were highly sedentary, sitting some 8 to more than 10 hours per day. The University of Texas Southwest Medical Center took this one step further by looking at how sitting affects health. They found that each unit of time sitting cancelled out 8 percent of the gain from running.

As a long distance runner who was busting out that one big workout at the start of each day followed by sitting like a bump on a log for the remaining hours on end, this was all very depressing.

Sitting’s Effect on Exercise

A recent study in American Journal of Preventative Medicine examined and followed some 92,000 women ages 50–79 years to find “a linear relationship” between the amount of time spent sedentary and health issues (cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cancer mortality). While it’s not clear that sitting makes you fat, it certainly makes you unhealthy. I could feel my body getting ever more unhealthy, ironically, all while working for a fitness magazine.

The takeaway is that exercise shouldn’t be considered the cure for the negative health effects of sitting all day. The problem has to be addressed separately. I learned to consider sitting as I would, say, smoking. If I were a smoker, I could exercise like a fiend, but my overall fitness is not going to cancel out the negative effects of a daily tobacco habit. The answer to health issues that arise from smoking is to cut back and, eventually, quit the instigating habit. Sitting, like smoking, is a practiced activity with a set of resulting bodily harms. Rather than banking on X amount or type of exercise to wipe out the ill effects of sitting all day, I need to change my sitting habits for better overall health.

My Standing Resolves for 2015 

  • get on my feet while reading the newspaper in the morning or when talking on the phone
  • take brief breaks every 30 to 45 minutes of computer/desk-focused time
  • insert walk breaks into my schedule throughout the day
  • assert the need for a standing break during meetings (can be disguised as a “bio break”–nobody argues with a woman who has to go to the bathroom)
  • quit thinking that my workout is the “be all, end all” of my fitness

Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at www.leahruns100.com, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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