The Science of Inactivity: Escape the Deathtrap

Our world has evolved fast. Technological and social evolution has dramatically outpaced our body’s capacity for biological adaptation. We were designed to move; yet we are largely sedentary, with profound consequences for our health and happiness. Today, science offers new insights that help us to stay young.

Stand up. Right away. If you’re sitting to read this article, please stand up before you continue. If you can, walk while you read it. Thank you.

Dr James Levine is an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. As an endocrinologist, he is at the epicenter of many of today’s most vexing medical challenges. A life of inactivity is deadly for your body that was designed for vigorous daily use. The consequences are a systemic inflammatory overload that ages us prematurely, and leaves us vulnerable to heart disease, cancer, degenerative disorders like dementia, and premature death. Sitting for more than 4 hours a day doubles your risk of premature death!

Driven by these alarming facts, Dr Levine has spent his career researching our activity patterns. He uses a number of different research tools, including very funky underwear. He loads the special garments with electronic sensors that gather information about his subjects’ activity patterns throughout the day. He published a synopsis of his work recently in the Scientific American.

The root of the problem is the energy imbalance caused by inactivity. Not only do you burn fewer calories by not exercising, but inactivity slows your overall metabolic rate; you use fewer calories just living than an active person. This excess calorie load triggers the metabolic changes that cause the diseases you and I fear most, and results in substantial changes in the quality of our daily life. You disrupt the chemical balance that makes you happy!

Levine found that office workers could sit for up to 15 hours per day. By comparison, people in rural agricultural communities sit for only 3 hours a day and burn a colossal 2,000 calories more each day than their sedentary peers.

In one fascinating experiment, Levine and his colleagues overfed volunteers (with their permission, of course). They consumed an additional 1,000 calories a day for 2 months. At the end of this time, they noticed that many of the volunteers had gained significant weight, but more importantly, some had not. Somehow, they had resisted the caloric overload, and without exercising, they had remained thin. The answer was lurking in the activity logs generated by the smart underwear. Without any conscious decision, the volunteers that gained no weight had increased their activity levels. Without embarking on an arduous exercise binge, they had increased their mobility in their everyday tasks, and had thwarted the toxic effects of the calorie overdose.

Unfortunately, like so many of us, the volunteers that put on weight have learnt to override the biological connections that linked excess calorie intake to subconscious increases in activity levels. We have learnt to suppress the urge to move so that we can sit at our desks for endless hours. Well-intentioned schoolteachers keep us chained to our desks as young learners, and bosses across the globe restrain workers in cubicles to increase productivity. We have become systematically desensitized to our bodies’ biological pleas, and the desperate cries for help of our tortured metabolisms.

There is hope! We know that activity and exercise reverse these trends and dramatically reduce the negative impact on our health and happiness. For WHealth, you have to take 10,000 steps on at least 5 days of every week. You achieve this with a deliberate exercise plan, AND by increasing your movement throughout the day. Take the steps not the elevator. Walk next to the escalator rather than riding it passively. Take walking meetings. Stand up and walk around while you’re on the phone. If you have to spend long hours at your desk, set an alarm that gets you up and moving every hour. Consider a standing desk, or even a treadmill desk (invented by the same Dr Levine!) as an alternative to some of your regular desk hours.

Your health and happiness are in your hands. Move, for WHealth!

Have fun,

Roddy

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