An Interview on Commuting, Sitting, and Managing the Effects

I was recently interviewed by Meg Boberg of Los Angeles-based Traffic Byte about the challenges of commuter life- the average commute in the US today is now over 46 minutes. The one defining feature of commuting in a car is the inability to stand up, and the increasing amount of time spent sitting is a problem for most of us in this modern age.

So I thought I'd share some of our conversation about how the body deals with this kind of sitting, and what we can do to reverse the effects of too much sitting. 

Meg: How does the body respond when we stand versus when we sit for extended periods of time?
Dr Joan: Think of the body as toys that you need to shake to keep them working. The body needs to move up and down in relation to gravity to keep the blood circulating and tune the machine that pumps the blood around – not unlike a car. Gravity then pulls the blood down to the feet while the heart and arteries pump the blood against gravity up to the head to fuel the brain. Unlike the rest of the body that converts what we eat to glucose, the brain needs the blood to transport the oxygen and nutrients, mainly glucose, to supply it with fuel to function. No fuel, or running on low, compromises how the brain works.
Standing up and sitting down or lying down and standing up again is how we do it. Doing so once a day and expecting it to work all day doesn’t do it.

Every time you stand up the blood is drawn to the feet by gravity – plain hydraulics. The sensors in the neck register reduced volume topside triggering the heart to begin to pump harder.  This increases heart rate and raises blood pressure thereby increasing blood flow to the brain. If you stand up often you will hardly notice anything was happening. If you have not stood up for a while, as with a couple of days in bed with the flu, you may pass out because your pumping system is out of shape. You faint because your brain is not getting the blood supply to carry the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function. Start moving again and you quickly recover.

If you stand up or sit down for too long the blood stagnates in the feet and legs (encouraging swollen feet, blood clots and varicose veins) and even though the heart and pumping system may work well for a while eventually it slows down or quits. So, neither uninterrupted extended sitting nor uninterrupted standing are good for you. Guards at Buckingham Palace learn to squeeze their muscles periodically to pump the blood up. 

Meg:  What are some of your suggestions for office workers, who can’t control the fact that they must commute to work, sit during office hours and may sit even more when they go home?
Dr Joan: Office workers who commute by train or who sit at work or when they get home need to structure their lives to introduce frequent opportunities to stand up often throughout the day until they become habits. They can do this with electronic or web-based reminders, by getting out of their chair to communicate with others – more sociably rewarding – or drink water, or use the restroom, but not all at once, as well as using the stairs instead of lift or escalator. In other words, consciously take every opportunity to incorporate movement of all kinds into the day. They also need to sit up in as upright a chair as possible. Slouching or tucking legs under the chair cuts off the circulation to and from the legs even further. Upright posture with feet flat on the floor encourages unobstructed circulation even when sitting. Working at upright desks and upright desk treadmills are fads that are hard to sustain. A new sliding adjustable desk - the XTensionDesk - looks more promising and can be adjusted to your height and your best work level from sitting to standing – better for your back as well.

Commuter driving is bad for your health not merely because you are sitting. But if you have to, choose your work hours carefully to avoid stress and minimize the drive. Do not have a full breakfast before you start. The combination of stress, sitting and a full stomach that draws blood to your stomach and away from your brain is lethal. Use the slow traffic and traffic lights as an opportunity to practice deep breathing and some isometric leg contractions. Make sure the seat is at optimum level and back position for upright active posture. Introduce using the stairs, taking a walk, using the gym for short periods; shower immediately on arrival at work to provide a time-out between your commute and beginning of the work day.

Meg:What are some of the detrimental effects of prolonged periods of sitting?Dr. Joan: Recent studies have linked increased mortality of hours of uninterrupted sitting per day to breast and colon cancer. Deaths from cardiovascular disease have also been linked to too much sitting even in people who exercised.

Sitting is a leading cause of obesity, Type II diabetes, bone and muscle loss, joint problems, back pain, depression and reduced immune function.

That Green Thing

by Joan Vernikos

The following anecdote and related article is about living “green” and how in bygone years our lifestyles were less reliant on the many conveniences of modern life. And there’s a valuable extra takeaway in there.
“Checking out at the store, the young cashier suggested to the older woman that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment.
The woman apologized and explained, “We didn’t have this green thing back in my earlier days.”
The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.”
She was right — our generation didn’t have the green thing in its day.
Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day.
We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day.
Back then, we washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts — wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right. We didn’t have the green thing back in our day.
Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right. We didn’t have the green thing back then.
We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn’t have the green thing back then.
Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.
But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then?”

As you might imagine, what struck me about this post isn’t so much about the “green” movement. For me this story illustrates the significant changes that have taken place within only a few generations in the level of activity that was required in daily life. Non-exercise activities, including the several common ones highlighted here, kept the older among us and our parents slim and healthy without going to the gym or running 10K’s.

In the modern world we tend to rely on technologies that have minimized our habits of being active all day with these non-exercise activities (NEATs). Our reliable and plentiful powered vehicles have almost eliminated the need for self-propulsion. We hop on an electric gym-treadmill rather than take a walk or ride a bicycle down the road to accomplish a task. Our huge refrigerator-freezers and the readily-available packaged and processed foods means we no longer need to plan and cook meals. Elevators and escalators have mostly replaced walking upstairs. Clothes-dryers have eliminated the need to carry laundry outside to hang on a line, and wrinkle-free garments and dry cleaners have nearly eliminated the activity we got from ironing (although I am not complaining about doing less ironing!). The vacuum cleaner replaced the broom, and we know that pushing (or even riding) a powered mower is a heck of a lot less strenuous than pushing a human-powered one.

Back “in the day,” in the process of living an ordinary existence, our lives were replete with activity. At the same time we used less heating and transportation fuels. And we hadn’t been taken over yet by the throwaway culture that developed so quickly starting in the 1950’s. We washed empty containers and re-used them, used very little plastic, had no paper towels, and consequently had much smaller household ecological footprints. So perhaps we were green before anyone called it that.

And we certainly did not have to worry about sitting too much back then; sitting was a luxury. And when we did sit we usually accomplished something – knitting or sewing, talking with each other. And yes, we danced a lot more then too.
Conditions were more conducive to leading a healthy lifestyle precisely because we had so much daily activity. Maybe backwards isn't such a bad way to go.