As a freelance writer specializing in health and preventative care, I write about how to protect your health every day.
I tell readers how to eat right, exercise, and in general, live longer and more pain-free lives. After over 15 years of writing and researching in this area, I’ve determined that even if you eat fast food, consume hardly any vegetables, and down at least three donuts a week, if you exercise consistently, you’ll still be likely to avoid a lot of health problems.
We’re facing an obesity epidemic as a nation. We need to get moving. We’re not moving enough. Our kids are hardly moving at all. Our high-tech, modern lives are keeping us glued to the chair, which is destroying our health.
I try to be conscientious about this myself. As a writer, I spend a ton of time at the keyboard. I try to get up at least once an hour, and I’m really disciplined about getting at least an hour of exercise every day, either running or walking or a combination of the two. I also do yoga at night, before bed. I’ve maintained a healthy weight and in general, have felt like I was doing pretty well.
Until a couple weeks ago. I got a visceral, in-your-face reminder of just how UN-physical we’ve all become…and how dangerous that really is.
Back to How it Used to Be
From the time I was nine years old, my family lived and worked on a 10-acre ranch. We weren’t really farmers. Both Mom and Dad worked outside the home, but we had enough animals on the place that we had to do “chores” a couple times a day, which consisted of throwing hay, hauling buckets of water, filling bins with grain, milking cows, feeding the milk to calves, gathering and washing eggs, and the like. Our weekends were equally stacked with tasks like shoveling manure, repairing fence, grooming horses, butchering chickens, watering the field, rearranging pens, giving shots, trimming hooves, and more.
My brothers and I were active kids. We were all involved in sports, music, and several after-school activities, but no matter what time we got home, chores were waiting for us. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it was a really good way to learn responsibility.
My mom still owns the ranch, and though she no longer milks cows, she still has a barn full of animals, including three horses, four dogs, chickens, beef cows, goats, several cats, and more. I’m convinced all these critters are the reason she stays so young-looking and acting. When she asked me to watch over the place while she traveled across country for a family wedding, I wasn’t concerned. I’d grown up doing it, and the chores are easier now. Of course I said “yes.” I was looking forward to it.
One Hour of Jogging Isn’t Enough
I spent nearly two weeks at home, the place completely in my hands. I got up in the morning and ran 4-5 miles, then did the chores, then went to work on my regular freelance projects. At the end of the day, there were more chores to do. Hay to feed, dogs to put in their pens, feed to prepare for the morning, stuff like that. All easy for me, as I’d done it all millions of times before. But all very physical.
I learned something I’ve been writing about for years. We are all WAY too sedentary. I could feel it in my bones. Even me, miss disciplined daily exerciser, felt after those two weeks like my daily 3-4 miles a day at home was not nearly enough to feel as strong as I felt those two weeks.
Your One-Hour Workout is Not Enough
We hear all the time about how much more sedentary we are than our parents were, or our grandparents were. I feel now like these messages haven’t been strong enough. We are a ton more sedentary than they were. Things have not just changed—they’ve changed drastically.
Recent studies have been telling us that our one-hour daily workout is not enough. Particularly for office workers, drivers, and others who sit still for six hours or more a day, even an hour at the gym is not enough to offset the damage. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, for instance, found that even if you exercise one hour a day, if you spend much of the other 23 sitting, you increase your risk of premature death.
Another study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that those participants who spend four or more hours of their recreational time in front of a screen were 50 percent more likely to die of any cause. What was surprising was that it didn’t matter whether or not the men were physically active for several hours a week.
The American College of Cardiology reports that a sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor in itself for disease, even in those who regularly exercise. You may work out like a Marine, but if you’re sitting another 8 hours at the office and then enjoying a couple hours of television at night, you’re still endangering your health. Dr. James Levine from the Mayo Clinic names the problem the “sitting disease,” likening the discovery of the ill effects of inactivity to the discovery of the side effects of smoking.
The Sitting Disease
Why is sitting so dangerous? Researchers theorize that being sedentary may affect fat metabolism. Excess sitting may also lead to higher levels of inflammation, which can increase risk of heart disease.
Whatever the reason, sitting for extended periods of time is just bad for our health. We all know this, somewhere inside us—or because we been listening to all the messages about how we need to change our lifestyles. It’s different, however, to actually experience the change. Living and working on the ranch, I was reminded of what I used to do, as a teenager, and how different that is from my life today. I believe I’m representative of what many adults are doing with most of their daytime hours—sitting at a computer.
What’s the solution? That’s the tough part. Scientists are now telling us to get up and move more often. I’m doing that, but it’s not easy. It’s one thing to walk up to the barn and drag 60-lb bales of hay, toss slabs with a pitchfork, haul water out to distant pens, and climb up and over fences. There, I was using all sorts of muscles to carry out these tasks. I hardly thought about exercising. Here, it’s more like, “You’d better get up and walk the treadmill, jump rope, do some lunges, or slam out a few pushups before getting started on your next article.” Not quite the same. My body knows it. I know it.
We’re all still trying to figure this out. If sitting at the computer is what brings home the bacon, how can we protect our health without giving up our jobs? I’ve listed some ideas below. What are yours?
- Do activities in between projects—clean your desk, take notes to a coworker across the office, run an errand down the street, take the trash out—anything that gets you up and moving.
- Buy a pedometer and wear it all day. A healthy goal is 10,000 steps. If you’re not getting it, note what times of day you’re most sedentary, and make a point of walking more during those times.
- Get up, whenever you can. Make rules for yourself. Whenever the phone rings, get up. Set your alarm on your watch and get up every 30 minutes. At every commercial, get up and do something—put a dish in the dishwasher, clean off the counter, pick up the living room, or wash down the bathroom sink. Before driving home, walk around the office building three times.
- Make sure your weekly “to-do” list contains as many active tasks as inactive ones. If all the tasks involve you sitting in the car or sitting at the computer, try again. Add some grocery shopping and make a point to walk around the entire store as briskly as you can. Park at least a couple blocks away from your destination. Add in an after-work walk at the park. Use your imagination.
- Schedule active leisure activities for at least twice a week—meet friends for a game of racquetball or a fast walk around the mall, take dancing lessons, join a softball team, walk the dog, take a Zumba class, sign up for karate—whatever excites you.
- Buy yourself a few acres and get a few animals. There’s nothing that forces you to get going more than those little faces waiting on you for their breakfast!