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I Sit Too Much … and So Do You

| July 13, 2021

by Jim Bruce

[Jim Bruce, today’s author, is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Jim can be reached at [email protected].]
Elan Goldwaser, sports medicine specialist at New York Presbyterian Hospital, puts it this way: “Our bodies were not designed to sit for long periods of time, yet most or us are guilty of sitting too much. Regardless of our age or occupation, we sit … far more frequently than we should.”1 He continues, reporting that “The neck gets tense and tight because we’re straining. … We’re arching our neck a little bit, which increases the curvature of our backs … It puts strain on the trapezius muscle, which connects to the shoulder and the upper back to keep the neck in pace…We begin to develop those classic ‘knots. The whole back starts to arch forward because the muscles get a little strained and thus a little weaker. Over time that becomes tender, painful, and tight. ”1

And, the pandemic has not been helpful in this regard. In the office we frequently stood and walked to a colleague’s desk for a brief conversation. And, often the colleague stood as we approached, giving us both an opportunity to not sit. We walked to meetings, and maybe even got outdoors as we went to lunch or to a meeting in another building.

When we work from home, our colleagues and our meetings are on Zoom. No change in posture required unless we deliberately choose to stand (and have arranged our technology to enable that) or the presence of others requires you to go to another location or even outside. Research suggests that you rejoice in these opportunities to change your position and not begrudge them.

Nilofer Merchant, author and lecturer on collaborative leadership at Stanford, says that “sitting is the smoking of our generation.” She notes that excessive sitting is so “prevalent and so pervasive that we don’t even question how much we’re doing it. And, since everyone else is doing it, it doesn’t even occur to us that it’s not OK.”2 “Our whole culture invites you to take a seat. So, we know we have a huge job in front of us,”2 says Gavin Bradley, director of Active Working, an international group aimed at reducing excessive sitting.

Sitting too much is a serious matter. Medical researchers warn that prolonged sitting is dangerous. It is associated with a significantly higher risk of heart disease (6%), type 2 diabetes (7%), and breast and colon cancer (10%), along with muscle and joint problems. Some have gone on to say that the office chair is worse for your health than smoking and kills more people than HIV. An Australian doctor has been quoted as saying that excessive sitting, which he defined as more than nine hours per day, is a lethal activity. (And, here’s where you ask yourself just how many hours will I sit today? My guess, significantly more than nine.)

Even working out vigorously before or after work may not compensate for an extended time of sitting.

Bradley, of Active Working, says (as quoted by Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post3), “It’s all about mixing it up. Metabolism slows down 90% after 30 minutes of sitting. The enzymes that move the bad fat from your arteries to your muscles, where it can get burned off, slow down. The muscles in your lower body are turned off. And after two hours, good cholesterol drops 20 percent. Just getting up for five minutes is going to get things going again.”4

So, what might you do to reduce your time sitting? Possibilities include: Getting a standing desk (if you want to try the concept, put a carton of paper on your desk and place your laptop on that, it’s about the right height); stand during phone calls (or if you have several calls to make and don’t need to refer to materials, take a walk while you make the calls); stand at a whiteboard or a flip-chart and make notes there as you work through an issue; have as many meetings as possible away from your office and walk to each one; have a stand for your computer so that you can work away from your desk standing up (I saw a number of these on wheels recently when making a hospital visit); have stand up meetings, take the stairs, set a reminder to get up every 30 minutes; etc. And, for meetings with one or two other people, consider walking conversations. Merchant averages four walking meetings a week logging some 20 miles. (That’s a faster pace than most of us would take.)

Now, not all meetings with one or two people will work as a walking meeting. Merchant2 reports that about 30% of her invites to a walking meeting decline, saying that they are not sufficiently fit. Also, walking meetings won’t work when you need to use reference materials, when you need to write notes (maybe audio notes on a handheld device would work), or when it’s an intense negotiation. However, some of your meetings will work.

In the Harvard Business Review essay, How to Do Walking Meetings Right, Russell Clayton, Christopher Thomas and Jack Smothers report that recent research finds that the act of walking leads to increases in creative thinking.  Also, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that walking meetings lead to more honest exchanges with employees and are more productive than traditional sit-down meetings.

This HBR essay also reports that Ted Eytan, Medical Director of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health emphasizes that our brains are more relaxed during walks due to the release of certain chemicals. This aids executive function, which governs how we focus on tasks and deal with unforeseen events, among other things.  Dr. Eytan also believes walking meetings lead to better employee engagement by breaking down barriers between supervisor and subordinate or between coworkers. He sees the bonding achieved through walking meetings as a micro version of the bonding that can be experienced when coworkers travel together on business trips. Others have experienced this in meetings with individual team members: “The fact that we are walking side-by-side means the conversation is more peer-to-peer than when I am in my office and they are across a desk from me, which reinforces the organizational hierarchy.”

I hope that you are now convinced that you need to reduce your seat time. I know that I do. And, it is very hard. Also, I encourage you to have some of your one-on-ones as walking conversations. It would make for a worthy experiment. Start out slow, one for this week and if that works, try for two next week, and continue until you regularly have three or four walking meetings each week. After all, these are meetings that you would be holding anyway. You’re just changing the venue and opening up the possibilities. And, don’t forget the other ways that you might take to reduce your time sitting.

Researchers agree that we all sit far too much, about 10 hours per day – hours at the desk, focused on the computer screen, reading and writing emails, working on reports, eating lunch, in meetings, in front of the TV, surfing the web, playing video games, etc.  For comparison, we sleep, on the average, about 7.7 hours each day.  The number of hours sitting is about 40% (4 hours) too large. And, everyone agrees that only your individual action will change the situation.

So, let me challenge you, and myself, to take some action and experiment with reducing your seat time. Right now, take a few positive steps in this direction: For example, get a flip chart for your office and use it to capture ideas in one standing meeting you have for the coming week and schedule one outside walking meeting. I think that if you can get in the habit of sitting less and standing/walking more during your meetings you’ll find that it relaxes and energizes you and you’ll not turn back.
I trust that you and your colleagues will have a great week.  .  .     jim
 [An earlier version of this essay appeared as the Tuesday Reading for November 10, 2015.]

  1. Elan Goldwasser, Is Too Much Sitting Harming Your Body?, New York Presbyterian Hospital Newsletter.
  2. Nilofer Merchant, Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation, Harvard Business Review, January 14, 2013. See also, Merchant, Got a Meeting? Take a walk, TED2013.
  3. Brigid Shulte, Health Experts Have Figured Out How Much Time You Should Sit Each Day, The Washington Post, June 2, 2015.
  4. See Pomodoro Technique, Wikipedia. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals (each with a goal), traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are named pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student. During the short break, typically about 5 minutes, you do something entirely different – take a short walk, talk with a colleague about a non-work matter, anything that takes your mind off the task you were working on and allows your brain to enter a diffuse state. For a more complete discussion see the  July 16, 2018 Tuesday Reading, Learning How to Learn.