Remember "muscle isolation"? The idea that the best way to get in shape was to segment your body into any number of tiny pieces, work each one (usually to failure), and then, presto, you'd get big and strong?
I say "remember" as if this concept is dead, but of course it's not; it's still the way most people strength-train. Today I was at a 24-Hour Fitness in San Diego, and they have a color-code which tells you what body part each machine works: biceps, shoulders, triceps, etc. As much as I used to buy into that way of working, I'm so far down the road of thinking about muscle synergies and movement patterns that that particular model almost doesn't compute any more.
I mention muscle isolation because it's a seductive concept--the body as machine composed of distinct parts. Make the parts work right and the whole will work as well. People who have pain or injury focus on and treat the injured area itself rather than seeing an injury as indicative of a more systemic problem. They exercise for a few hours a week, and utterly forget about their bodies the rest of the time.Â
But the body, of course, is involved in everything we do, not just exercise. How we spend our time outside of the gym is, naturally, going to have a greater cumulative effect on your health and fitness than your time in it--simply because, all told, it's way, way more time than our exercise time.
This is why I wasn't surprised much when I read the CBS report on the American Journal of Epidemiology study suggesting that exercise--the way most people currently do it--doesn't prolong life or stave off heart disease in people who sit for three or more hours a day. It's always seemed odd to me that someone who sits for four or more hours a day, and then goes to the gym for three hours a week, isn't, technically "sedentary." Stack up the time you spend sitting and the time you spend exercising against one another and sitting is going to win in just about all of us. It does for me on many, maybe most, days--and I don't even have a full-time sit-down job!
So--what to do? I have a few thoughts on how to combat the ravages of all this sitting:
1) Do less of it. Yup, stand up as often as you can. Stretch, walk down the hall, pace around your office. Break up your sitting time as much as you can. Think you're going to get less productive? I'd argue not: a shift of literal perspective very often spurs a shift in inner perspective as well. So a brief stretch can often lead to an insight you missed.
2) Shift around in your chair. We're just not supposed to do the same thing over and over again. So move around a lot.
3) Take walk-meetings. Instead of meeting friends or co-workers for coffee, how about meeting them for a walk? It's not like you're going to get sweaty and exhausted; you're just going to walk and talk instead of sitting and talking.Â
4) Cultivate awareness. Take your eyes off the screen for a few seconds--SECONDS! Come on, that's nothing!--every minute or so. When you're thinking, shirt your focus to a distant object instead of remaining glued to the screen. Surprisingly effective.
5) Extend yourself. Sitting is basically an exercise in global flexion--no, not the contraction of the world economy, rather a full-body folding in that resembles the fetal position. To work against that, you need to go the other way now and then: stretch the arms out and up, lean the head back, extend the spine up and back. It's the opposite of what you spend your day doing, and you need to do it for a few minutes every hour--the yoga cobra pose or camel pose are great examples, but just the standard "morning stretch" is a great one, too.
6) Don't not exercise hard. The latest study suggests that exercise as most people do it doesn't provide much of a buffer against heart disease. So you have to exercise in a way that's DIFFERENT from what most people do. Meaning--hard. Now, your hard might be harder or easier than my hard, but it's got to be hard for you. I think that the upshot of many of these studies--and where exercise science is going to be nudging people in the next few years--is towards greater intensity and less duration. Interval training, circuit strength training, strongman-type stuff, outdoor-crazy stuff.
What other ideas do people have? Sitting is, in all likelihood, an unfortunate reality in our lives--how else can we counteract its ill effects?