I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore. Too many of them have languished, unkept. There was, for instance, the “Decade of Decluttering” I ushered in for New Year’s 2000 — that was a hoot. (If anything, my family and I moved in the opposite direction by adding on to the house in 2003 and creating more places to store stuff.)
Nowadays, instead of making new resolutions, I dredge up old ones and try to find new ways of keeping them. It’s a humbler goal, but one that occasionally brings glimmers of success.
Like this year. I’m jazzed because a new book is finally enabling me to achieve my goal of making my little strengthening/stretching routine a daily thing, as opposed to a hit-and-miss thing two or three days a week. I’ve been trying to accomplish that goal for the last 15 years, without success.
But now, with the inspiration of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals (by Joan Vernikos, PhD; Quill Driver Books, 2011), I’m actually making it through all my little lifts and stretches every day. I do it by breaking the routine into tiny chunks, then doing one chunk every 30 minutes, while I’m working at my desk. (Full disclosure: I’ve actually accomplished the entire routine just twice — once yesterday and once today. But I’m pretty sure this is a turning point.)
The book, at barely 100 pages, is terrific. Its subtitle, “How Simple Everyday Movement Will Prevent Pain, Illness, and Early Death — and Exercise Alone Won’t,” is a good summary of its highly motivating message. The author, a former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division, has worked with astronauts to discover the effects of zero gravity on the human body. Along the way, she also discovered that the effects of “not enough” gravity on anyone’s body can contribute to a passel of health problems, including many that speed aging.
That’s because our bodies evolved to deal with gravity. When we’re sitting or lying down, gravity is exerting a minimal pull on our bones and muscles. But when we’re standing and moving, our bodies are working against gravity the way nature intended. Apart from sleep time, we’re meant to be meandering about, hunting and gathering and whatnot, pretty much constantly. In modern times, we sit most of that time instead — at a desk, working. On a couch, watching TV. At the kitchen table, surfing the Internet. In an easy chair, reading.
All this inactivity adds up, says Vernikos, increasing our risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, muscle wasting, arthritis, balance/coordination problems, poor sleep, and a lack of stamina and energy.
I feel old just thinking about it.
The surprising thing is that normal workout patterns don’t offset the effects of too much sitting. Working out at a gym or walking every day are good and will definitely contribute to your health, but they can’t undo the damage that hours of continuous sitting can do.
The good news, though, is that it takes amazingly little to neutralize the negative effects of inactivity. According to Vernikos (and remember, she is a rocket scientist of sorts), simply standing up will do the trick, as long as we do it intermittently and often enough throughout the day. (Standing up and sitting back down 15 times in a row, for example, doesn’t count. Standing up every 20 or 30 minutes throughout the day, however, does.)
So here’s how I’m using that prescription to routinize my little workout. I keep a timer at my desk, set to go off every 30 minutes. Whenever it beeps, I stand up, stretch, take several deep breaths, then do one-eighth of my weight-training/stretching routine — say, one set of biceps curls and one set of triceps extensions. (Working opposing muscle groups consecutively is a good thing.)
Continuing this way — which is easy because each break takes such a short amount of time — I find that I can get through my entire routine over the course of about four hours working at my desk. As a bonus, I never have that sluggish, zombie-ish feeling that comes from sitting for hours at a time.
Obviously, the fact that I work from home makes it easy for me to take frequent exercise breaks. Still, even just standing up — without the additional exercises — will provide the “gravity-effective” health benefits Vernikos is talking about. And just standing is something anyone can do, at any job.
There are other ways I’m trying to achieve what Vernikos calls “perpetual motion,” too. For example, I now stand up and stroll about when talking on the phone. (This has the added benefit of keeping me from falling asleep during boring conference calls.)
I’m also training myself to be “inefficient” around the house. By this I mean, instead of grouping tasks as I go from room to room, I do just one thing at time, which then requires more trips back and forth. So, for example, when I hop up to let the cat out, I don’t take the dog out at the same time. I wait until a little later, to create another opportunity to get up and walk about. (Pets fit very nicely into a keep-moving effort.)
Vernikos stresses that this type of ordinary movement is what enables an otherwise neglected group of muscles to stay in shape. She explains that we have two types of muscles, “stabilizers” and “mobilizers.” Stabilizers are what we use to maintain our body’s posture against the pull of gravity. The muscles along your spine that keep you erect, or those along the back of your neck that keep your head upright are stabilizers.
Mobilizers are the larger muscles that move the body. Mobilizers are targeted in traditional gym or training routines.
Stabilizers depend for their fitness on working against gravity in the small movements of everyday living. When those movements are minimized by inactivity, the stabilizers weaken. This, in turn, contributes to an overall loss of balance, a decrease in stamina, and the downward posture associated with old age.
Which is all the more reason, in this new year, that I intend to stand up and get moving. (And this time I really mean it.)
Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat. Share your thoughts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.