Bad News for Writers – Sitting is Killing You

I’m a smug over-exerciser who got her come-uppance at the GP surgery when I was told that my cholesterol had shot up. How could this be? I cycle, go to the gym and ride a horse! But it’s what I do the rest of the time that’s the problem…..So I’m handing you over to healthcare professional, Rona Morgan, to find out what I and my fellow writers may be doing wrong….

Perhaps you’ve heard – “Sitting is the new smoking”. Is this another scaremongering headline or is it reality and what are the implications for writers?

Prime suspects

The three top causes of an unhealthy lifespan are tobacco use, dietary pattern and physical inactivity. There are other causes of course, but it is striking that the top three are largely within our own control.

For most writers, the third, physical inactivity comes, as they say, with the territory. Consider, as well, all the other times during the modern day when we are not physically active – driving or sitting on public transport, watching television, reading, sitting in restaurants, cafes etc. – it all counts as sitting. As an occasional writer and avid computer user myself, I know only too well the problems that arise from sitting in one place for too long. These range from neck, shoulder and back pain to a spreading derrière due to inactivity as well as mindless munching “to help me think”. But who knew, until now, that it was also deadly? I wonder how many professional writers are aware of the risks they are facing just doing their jobs in the seeming safety of their own homes or offices? It even has a name: “sitting disease”, coined by Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic. Levine claims “Excessive sitting is a lethal activity.”

Inactivity has been linked to a plethora of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and early death. It is no coincidence that obesity carries the same disease risks, but the eye-opener is that you don’t necessarily have to be obese to increase your risk of disease and death, just inactive. You may even have heard the terms “skinny fat”, where normal-weight individuals may be unhealthy if they carry a lot of internal body fat and little muscle. More bad news – a short exercise session a day won’t mitigate the damage done by sitting too long.

The plot thickens

Here’s why: When you are sitting, your muscles are not burning fat and blood flows more slowly, potentially allowing fatty acids to accumulate and cause blockages. The muscles are also not responding to insulin produced by the pancreas and so more and more is produced, leading to insulin resistance and diabetes. Excess insulin encourages cell growth and may be a cause of many cancers, whereas activity produces antioxidants to kill cell-damaging free radicals. Prolonged sitting has been linked to high blood pressure and sedentary individuals are more than twice as likely to have cardio-vascular disease than the least sedentary individuals.

In addition, muscle degeneration due to inactivity leads to weak abdominal muscles, back pain, disk damage, neck pain, tight hips and weak gluteal (butt) muscles. All of these will limit mobility and increase the risk of falls as well as inability to carry out every day activities.

If that were not enough, know that reduced blood circulation present during inactivity leads to brain fog, reduced brain function and low mood.
Not very helpful when you need three more chapters by the end of the week!

Why should we care?

We know that, statistically, people are living longer. For many though, life expectancy is increasing but healthy life span is decreasing. In other words, we are living longer but living less healthily, particularly in later life when many of us are succumbing metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes) and perhaps to disability (that is, not able to complete all every day tasks). The impact on individuals is more medical treatment, more medicines and lower quality of life as well as increased risk of early death. The impact on health care systems and national budgets is profound. It is estimated that the current cost to UK’s health service of diabetes (Types 1 and 2) is £14bn per annum for England and Wales. A staggering 10% of the NHS budget is spent on diabetes and 10% of hospital beds are occupied by diabetes patients. This is predicted to increase. Factor in the cost of the other two leading causes of unhealthy life – cardiovascular disease (£9 bn in 2006 ) and smoking (£5.2bn in 2005/6 ) and the NHS starts to look unsustainable.

This is not an anti-smoking rant (but as a health professional, I would urge you stop – it’s the single best thing you can do to improve your health) and you probably know how to eat healthy whole food (if you don’t there are countless websites out there expounding it’s virtues), so let’s focus on activity, or rather inactivity, the bane of most writers.

Rewrite your future (pun intended)

The Romans, who named January after their forward- and backward-facing god, Janus, often took stock of their past behaviors and vowed to make improvements in the year ahead; hence the custom of New Year resolutions. Feeding yourself more wholesome foods and putting your body into motion can lead to immediate benefits, such as better mood and mental clarity, improved sleep, more energy, less pain and stress, and a greater overall sense of well- being.

If you were only allowed one car in your lifetime, my bet is you would look after it diligently – servicing regularly, cleaning and feeding it quality fuel. Well, listen up! You do only get one vehicle for life and you are living in it! Nurture it. In the normal course of life, it will start to go wrong and wear out but neglect will only increase the pace of decline. Unused, it will rust and seize up like an unused motor vehicle.

And now for the good news…..

There are things you can do to halt the seemingly inevitable decline into dysfunction. Here are my suggestions:

Early morning walk or jog

I find that a morning walk helps clear the mind after the fog of sleeping but also is a most creative time. I get lots of ideas while walking and compose stuff in my head. A smartphone is useful for dictating ideas as you walk as they are easily forgotten once the walk is over. A small notepad and pencil are just as effective. Walking can also be a form of meditation, assuming you can find somewhere safe and quiet to walk, not a busy road. So even if ideas don’t come, use the time to “clear the decks” for the day ahead. Let your surroundings inspire you and wallow in nature, enjoying the smells, sights and sounds around you. I met a man recently who was jogging but had stopped and was staring into a tree. He commented that it was only a tiny bird but made a lot of noise. I told him that I had just seen a kingfisher and he looked at me earnestly and said “Do you know, I have been jogging in this park for 10 years and I have only just started noticing things”. Open your eyes and your ears and be inspired!

Instead of meeting your publisher or pal for coffee, have a walking meeting – it will be more focused, productive and efficient.

Take regular breaks

Sitting too long makes you stiff, tightens muscles and causes poor posture; all of which can lead to physical dysfunction. Taking regular breaks is a good way to keep everything moving. For writers this may be tricky if you are in full flow but try setting the alarm on your smartphone (or kitchen timer) for 50 mins past the hour, every hour. After 50 minutes, stop, get up, walk around, drink water or make a cup of tea and stretch. Can’t spare 10 minutes? Then consider this: often a short break improves the quality of work done in the following 45 minutes. Bonus – if you are having trouble focusing, you only need to focus for 45 minutes! Research has shown that we retain more of what we learn at the beginning and end of a study session, so having multiple short sessions instead of a long one means greater retention or productivity. If you are learning a language (good for our mental health), give it a try.

Wear a pedometer, activity monitor or smart watch.

Most people move far less than they perceive they do. The adage “What gets measured, gets managed” is undoubtedly true. Wearable technology is the big thing in health and fitness these days. In Australia, based on initial research, the Victoria health department is giving activity monitors to MS patients as a trial to track if increased activity improves the condition. These devices are also very motivating. Some even send you a reminder to move if you have been still for too long. Track your daily activity and note the trends.

Improve your posture

We develop many bad movement habits through the types of repeated activities we do every day. Sitting at the computer, we hunch over the keyboard, shoulders at our ears, not moving. The result is tight neck and shoulders, sore wrists and lower back pain. These can be mitigated to a degree with a good chair and the appropriate desk. But no matter how ergonomic your workspace is, if you sit slumped at your desk all day, your body will show signs of tension and stress.

Sit upright and be gentle with the keyboard, tap it lightly, and release neck tension frequently.

Better still, reduce sitting:

Reducing sitting by 3 hours a day can add 2 years to your life.
Here are some exercises you can do at your desk:

Use a standing desk or put your computer on a higher shelf but it’s important to get the ergonomics right: you want your monitor to be at eye level and your keyboard to be at the height of your hands when your forearms are parallel to the ground. Movement is the key, so don’t stand all day either – mix it up with sitting and try to move around.

If you work at a laptop, get a separate keyboard and mouse or trackpad and an external monitor so you can separate the screen from your interfaces. It’s inexpensive and worth it to create the right set-up. Otherwise you are putting the monitor and the keyboard at the same level, and you will end up with neck issues. And don’t ignore aches and pains – they are warning that you need to adjust the way you are doing something.

Reduce sitting while watching television – do gentle stretches or yoga while catching up on your favourite serial.

Don’t be the Elephant in the room

As mentioned earlier, the benefits of physical activity are numerous:

• Improved focus and sharpened memory
• Increased energy
• Can prevent and combat health conditions including high blood pressure, stroke, metabolic syndrome, cardio-vascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, arthritis and falls
• Enhanced mood, reduce stress
• Can prevent cognitive decline
• Weight control
• Better quality sleep
• It can also be fun!

Still not convinced? Well, increased activity can boost creativity and boost productivity as well as improving libido. Now who doesn’t want those?

The many benefits of physical activity are a compelling reason to keep active if you have a sedentary occupation. The really good news is it is never too late to start. I recently met a wonderful lady (we call her “Super Betty”) who is most likely the oldest personal trainer in the world. She regularly conducts Aqua classes and other group classes for active ageing. Betty is 84 and started her own journey to active healthy living in her 70’s.

However focussed on your work you are or how productive you think you are being, please factor in time to move. As we get older it is so important to be able to carry out activities for everyday living such as shopping, laundry, cooking and personal hygiene. When you feel those joints stiffen as you sit for long spells, take it is a reminder that the old saying is so true: use it or lose it!!

A career banker, Rona Morgan won her own battle with creeping weight-gain along with her husband John (losing 50kg combined), and was inspired to leave banking and pursue her life-long interest in health and fitness full-time. She is now a certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach, Functional Ageing Specialist and writer. Her aim is help others age actively and as disgracefully as they please.

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