Professor Stuart Biddle
Institute of Sport, Exercise & Active Living, Victoria University, Melbourne.
When I was a child in the UK, there was a well-known story-telling TV program for children which started with the words ‘are you sitting comfortably …’. Little did we know then that we would be telling another story about the way we have created far too many opportunities to sit down and ‘take the weight off our feet’, and the fact that this can have serious health consequences. Of course, there is a time and place for sitting. But we do far too much.
I was really taken by a recent book by Dr Joan Vernikos, the former Director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division, in which she compares too much sitting with some of the health problems astronauts encountered through being weightless in space. If you think about it, we are creating our own weightlessness by sitting for so long. We are shutting down the main muscles of the body, reducing energy expenditure, and losing the positive effects of gravity. This is referred to as ‘gravity deprivation syndrome’ in the book which Dr Vernikos has given the eye-catching title of ‘Sitting Kills – Moving Heals’!
The problem we all encounter here is that we sit without giving it much thought. It’s a habit. As I say to my students, “how many of you today, as you walked into this lecture theatre, stopped to think whether you would sit or stand?”. Of course, none of them answer in the affirmative. They all just walk in and sit down. Why? Because that what the physical and social context demands. It’s a lecture, it’s in a lecture theatre. We don’t even think about it.
Can we break these habits? Yes, we can. First, we need to make some physical changes, such as creating desks that allow for standing. Second, we need social changes, such as ‘permission’ or ‘prompts’ to sit less and stand and move more. One example is to announce at the beginning of a meeting that colleagues are free to stand at any time. In some conferences I go to, we have ‘active applause’ where all applause for speakers is done standing. A social climate is created in these contexts that ‘allows’ or encourages less sitting. Other strategies might include prompts (to sit less, move more) on the computer screen, in public areas, and even at home. Keeping a personal log of sitting time might also help.
So, are you sitting comfortably? Then please stand up!