Attention couch potatoes: You may die sooner

Jul. 27, 2013 @ 10:32 AM

Even when my mother’s brain was tangled with the plaque of Alzheimer’s, she always remembered the stairs. 

The house I grew up in had tall ceilings and a magnificent stairway that wound its way to the second floor.   My parents’ photography studio was in our house, with the studio on the ground floor, and the darkroom tucked in the back of the second.  The arrangement made for a lot of trips up and down.

“Those stairs keep us healthy,” my mom loved to say.  Peter made a similar statement last week when he came in hot and sweaty from some physical labor here on the farm.  “If it doesn’t kill us,” he said, “this place will do us some good.”

The thing is, my mom and Peter are right, but not in the “exercise is good for you” way we’ve come to accept as true.  I was startled to find a lengthy article in my “Runners’ World” magazine warning that even consistent runners face health risks as perilous as smokers’ if we do one very common thing-- just sitting for hours at a time.

“Why Sitting Is the New Smoking (Yes, Even For Runners),” was the title of the article –words that spread ominously across the front cover.  “Ok,” I thought.  “We all know that being a couch potato is bad for you.”  But wait, this study says that running, even long-distance running, won’t save you.  Eating healthy won’t save you.  The only salvation from the curse of the sitters is to simply stop sitting so much.  And, apparently, active people sit just as much as sofa vegetables.

Because we are designed to move, our metabolism shuts down when we sit.  That means circulation slows and we burn less fat, which increases our risks for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even depression.  The numbers are daunting:  Diabetes risks go up seven percent for every hour we sit.  Sitting six or more hours a day increases our risk of death from heart disease by 18 percent.  The studies go on and on, and basically tell us that the more time we spend sitting, the earlier we die — regardless of age, body weight or fitness.

Perhaps my mom’s stairs were a key factor.  My mother was in her late 70s when she strapped on roller blades and headed onto the concrete with our younger daughter.  My father was pushing 80 when he did a handstand dive into our pond.  My parents were both short, and I recall them trotting through our big house.  Until they were quite elderly neither one of them sat very much during the day.  A loud bell rang frequently through the house whenever a customer came in, and it summoned them from their sitting. 

I don’t have a bell to pull me to my feet, but my own districtable nature has me hopping up frequently and perhaps keeping me healthy.  I tend to have two or three things going at any one time, and I navigate among them.  Right now I’ve got laundry in the washer, lunch on the stove, and I am finishing this column. 

Designers are coming up with standing desks, and cushy executive chairs are morphing into stools to slide on and off of, or big balls on wheels that keep your muscles moving while you sit.  I’ve even seen a television powered by an exercise bike, and even a treadmill desk.

We’re coming to understand that three 10-minute exercise periods might be more beneficial that one 30-minute session.  And every hour of sitting must be broken up by at least a good handful of minutes spent moving on our feet.  My mother was right about her stairs, but the key factor was how often they used them. 

Even here on the farm it is easy to lock ourselves into our desks for too long, or sit with a movie or a book.  I guess we all need a bell, like the one I grew up with, to summon us up out of our chairs to move around.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at sgladin@gmail.com, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.