There are a few new buzz words in town: “active couch potato” and “organic mover.” Just when we were becoming comfortably smug in our daily workout research has thrown a monkey wrench in our Pilates Reformer. It turns out that our herculean effort to ensure the thousands of dollars we spend annually on gym memberships is not money wasted may not be enough.
But don’t despair. Giving up on health is not an option and before we begin to list all the reasons why we can’t possibly add any more exercise to our lives know this: we don’t have to. Recommendations on the amount of exercise we should take haven’t changed since 2008. Both Livestrong and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention agree that one hundred and fifty minutes of moderate intensity activity each week—time that can parceled into ten-minute blocks—will adequately support cardiovascular health. In other words three ten-minute walks per day; five days a week is all it takes. Add in two days of light weight lifting and we’re on to a healthy lifestyle. Of course, these recommendations will not transform our bodies into those of Olympic athletes, but they will keep us vertical. They will keep our joints moving, our hearts beating, and our muscles strong. Therefore, as long as we’re consistent and the time we spend playing sports, hiking, dancing or swimming follows the suggested guidelines, exercise is not the issue.
The problem, it seems, is the time we spend sitting.
Results of a recent study of 100,000 American adults suggest that individuals who sit for more than six hours per day have a 40% greater risk of death over fifteen years—regardless of the amount of exercise they do. Individuals whose work involves long periods of sitting have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease compared to their more active friends. They have a 50% greater likelihood of a heart attack. While regular exercise adds a zestful clarity to life the truth is we still spend a far greater amount of time sitting than what is healthy for the body.
Sitting has more of an effect on the body than we want to believe. Sitting decreases the activity of the fat burning lipoprotein lipase. Because we are not using our own body weight for support, sitting diminishes bone density. It increases blood pressure while decreasing the diameter of our arteries. And because it increases blood pressure, habitual and epic bouts of sitting does the health of the kidneys no favors. At all.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that it is relatively simple to transform from an “active couch potato” to an “organic mover.” An active couch potato, sometimes mistaken for The Weekend Athlete and typically an individual filled with impressive intentions can change into an organic mover by spending more time on her feet during those hours when the rest of her office-mates are sitting. One of the nicest ways I know to add more organic movement to life is by delivering messages to co-workers in person rather than by sending an email or text.
But what about those of us who work from home? The closest thing I have to an office-mate is my foot thumping upstairs neighbor. I spend the non-yoga teaching part of my work life at home, in front of a computer. What can I do to bust a move?
A standing work station is a good choice. With a big enough budget we can go one step further—pun intended—by investing in a treadmill desk. Yes, someone has brought new meaning to the phrase “rat race” by combining a work station and treadmill. I’ll confess to coveting the gigantic ode to multi-tasking but since it’s unlikely one exists small enough to fit through the door of my studio apartment we’ll have to be more creative. In other words, we have to engage our brains if we want to engage our bottoms.
I turned my desk at home into a standing work station by cleaning and then inverting a large ceramic planter. Of course a stack of encyclopedias will manage the same task. And who uses their 27-volume set of Britannica when they have Google at their finger tips? The decorative planter, however, is heavy enough to remain stable and holds my laptop at the perfect height for my 5’5” frame.
While standing rather than sitting at our work stations is great, experts still recommend that we take a break every thirty minutes. To help me do that—especially when I’m working on a project and have settled into a flow—I’ll use the timer on my smart phone.
Stepping away from the work station is an opportunity to stretch the body and to clear the mind. The first thing I do is look out the window into the far distance to give my eyes relief from the strain of the short focal length that is endemic with computer work. And then I blink. Even having a slight squint when facing our monitor can reduce our blink rate by 50%. A slower blink rate contributes to chronic dry and strained eyes. So before I move, I blink.
Allowing our body to move organically suggests we need to listen to it. After sitting or standing at my work station for thirty minutes, as I take my break I ask myself “What part of my body needs attention?”
Sometimes I need to do nothing more than pace the living room for a few minutes.
Sometimes, though, my lower back feels tight and so I’ll take a gentle forward fold with my hands supported on a wall or table top and my legs perpendicular to the floor. This will create a long stretch through the back of the legs, across the hips, up the spine and into the shoulders. I’ll bend one knee and then the other to keep the joints moving fluidly and to add stretch to the outside of the hips.
If my shoulders are craving attention I’ll choose movements that lift the front of my chest to counter the ubiquitous forward roll we all seem to have mastered over the past few decades. With my hands clasped behind me I’ll roll by shoulders back and down. I’ll lift my heart toward the sky and allow the whole front of my body to open.
When I’m feeling “too in my head” I’ll stamp my feet or jog in place and stretch my toes. If my body feels heavy and leaden I’ll dance.
To increase circulation and to stimulate neural pathways I’ll form a loose fist and tap my body from foot to cranium. When I reach my scalp I’ll use my finger tips and give my head a vigorous massage.
How we choose to move—what we choose to move—depends so much on who we are and the work we’re doing. While you might begin with my examples it’s more important that you find a way back into your own body.
But not all movement is physical. Sometimes the shift we need to see is on the inside. We need to remind ourselves that remaining present in the moment—with our body, our work and our spirit—requires something more than a chime that sounds every thirty minutes.
To help myself stay present at my desk I created a desk top altar. It’s not much and in fact if anyone took a look at my desk they would never notice it there. I found a small box and made it my own with paint and paper. I believe this is an important step as it infuses the box with our energy and set intentions. As the paint dried I flipped through magazines and found words that described my hopes, my talents and my life. I collaged them to the inside of the box and then added a few small items as reminders of where I had been and where I hoped to go: a seashell collected on a beach in Australia when I was there to observe the solar eclipse, a feather to encourage my ideas to take flight, and a button I found in a San Francisco shop with the word “truth” imprinted on it.
Truth can set us free. So can breaking the invisible tethers that bind us to our desks. Move. Breathe. Take a break. Know truth.
For more details and options, visithttp://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/adults.html.
Mimm has been a yoga teacher, massage therapist, reflexologist and writer. When she’s not balancing in Ardha Chandrasana or wrestling with a sentence, Mimm’s either playing her guitar or doing homework. She is working towards a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology.