Sitting—The New Smoking?

I’m an unabashed fan of old movies, good and bad. The time period between 1930and 1960 holds a particular fascination for me. I enjoy watching the cultural norms as compared to the present day. Men wore wide brimmed hats, married couples slept in separate beds, and cigarette smoking was rampant. Chain-smoking appeared to be the norm.

Thankfully, times have changed. The hats are gone, and married couples sleep together. The public has been made painfully aware of the health consequences of cigarette smoking, such as premature aging and chronic disease. The Chinese have a saying concerning aging: “When a man gets old, his legs get old first”. This refers to balance as well as actual leg strength. The simple(?) act of getting out of a chair with-out using arm rests is an activity that requires strength, balance, and a certain degree of coordination. I can’t begin to count how many times during my former career as a homecare physical therapist I witnessed my patients, more often than not male, struggle to come to standing. Their spouses generally had less difficulty for reasons that will shortly be explained.

An individual with weak legs and impaired balance is less apt to pursue an active lifestyle. We are “wired” for safety. If our system perceives being upright and standing as a threat, the logical choice is to spend more time sitting where it’s safe. I’ve come across some recent studies that indicate that standing more often may increase longevity and the mechanisms by which too much sitting can lead to premature aging and disease. The studies address DNA integrity and brain health. Chromosomes hold our genetic material. The ends of chromosomes possess cap like structures called telomeres. They are somewhat like the plastic caps on shoelaces. The telomeres keep the chromosomes intact. Telomeres shorten with aging and begin to lose their protective function. Research has shown that people who spend more time on their feet have longer telomeres. Vigorous gym workouts have no effect on telomeres if the rest of the day is spent in front of a TV or at a desk doing computer work.

Standing makes the difference. Other studies have shown that excessive sitting has negative effects on brain health. It appears that areas of the brain that have cognitive and memory functions begin to physically atrophy as the result of too much down time. The above studies may explain the reason why my male patients had more problems with the sit/stand maneuver then their spouses. I dealt primarily with seniors. I often heard this common complaint from a male retiree’s spouse: “He just sits in the recliner all day and watches TV!” She, on the other hand had no time for lounging. House- keeping, cooking, shopping, etc. kept her on her feet throughout the day, thus preserving a level of fitness that surpassed her spouse’s.

What are some strategies for aging gracefully? My first choice would be Tai Chi. It is unsurpassed for increasing leg strength and balance. There are numerous evidenced based studies in accredited medical/science journals that attest to this. Wolf Lowenthal, a well-known Tai Chi instructor and author elaborates further: “As children we are grounded and relaxed into the earth. As we age we become progressively less connected to the ground. Our legs weaken and we become top heavy and tight in our upper body. Tai Chi reverses this process. We learn how to be a child again, sinking our energy to our center, regaining good balance and allowing our legs and the ground to support us.”

If Tai Chi is not your cup of tea, try the old standby—walking! Throw away your fitbit. Forget about hitting a target pulse rate or counting steps taken. Walk for the enjoyment of it. Taos offers many hiking paths and the scenery is good for the spirit. If weight training is your forte, try to rely less on machines. When possible, perform your exercises while standing and use free weights. This will build a more functional kind of strength and improve balance. Gardening is another excellent activity that will keep you on your feet and involve whole body movement.

I’ll conclude with another Chinese saying: “ The hinges of a well used door do not rust.” Diane Jacobs, a brilliant Canadian physical therapist puts it more succinctly: “Motion is lotion”


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One Response to “Sitting—The New Smoking?”

  1. Jeff says:

    About 18 months ago, I added sumo exercises to my practice. The simple act of squatting as in chiri-chozu (the face-off ritual before the sumo bout begins) – feet close together, knees spread wide, back erect with the hands resting lightly on the knees – has done wonders for my leg strength, knee flexibility, and balance. Not to mention my horse stance. This is also one of the primary positions in Zen yoga.

    Honestly when I started, I didn’t think my knees could take it, but today they are in better shape now than they’ve been since I was a kid, before the injuries. Knock on wood – when it’s very quiet I can hear them creaking ominously when I stand after an extended squat.

    Now I tell adult students, if you only have time to practice one thing, practice this.

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