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I Sit Too Much

| November 10, 2015

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, I Sit Too Much, should actually be titled “I Sit Too Much and So Do You.”

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 about 7.7 hours each day.  The number of hours sitting is about 40% (4 hours) too large, and researchers argue that individual action is urgently needed.

Nilofer Merchant, author and lecturer on collaborative leadership at Stanford, says that “sitting is the smoking of our generation.”  She goes on to note 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.  “Our whole culture invites you to take a seat.  We say, ‘Are you comfortable?’  ‘Please take a seat.’ So, we know we have a huge job in front of us,” says Gavin Bradley, director of Active Working, an international group aimed at reducing excessive sitting.

Shannon Wurthman, a digital and social media strategist, says that it’s the work culture.  “In the office, there’s so much pressure to sit – the feeling is, if your butt’s not in your seat, you’re probably not doing your job.” 

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%), diabetes (7%), and breast and colon cancer (10%), as well as creating muscle and joint problems.  Bradley, of Active working, says, “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.”

Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic – Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative has been studying the adverse effects of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles for years and has summed up his findings in two sentences.  “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting.  We are sitting ourselves to death.”

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);  standing 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);  standing at a whiteboard and making notes there as you work through an issue;  having as many meetings as possible outside your office and walking there;  having a stand for your computer so that you can work standing up (I saw a number of these on wheels recently when making visits at a hospital);  having stand up meetings;  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.  Merchant reports that about 30% of her invites to a walking meeting decline, saying that they are not sufficiently fit.  Also, walking meetings don’t work when you need to refer to reference materials, when you need to write notes (maybe audio notes on a handheld device would work), or when it’s an intense negotiation.

But, sometimes they do.  Jennifer Heimberg, a physicist at the National Academy of Sciences, goes on a run with her boss for her annual performance evaluation.  “It can be easier to introduce difficult topics when you aren’t sitting across the desk from each other.”

David Haimes, Senior Director in Oracle Financial Application Product Development wrote in his blog:  “[Walking] meetings seem to be more productive, away from the distractions of interruptions from other people, emails and IM coming in we can actually talk through the issues we need to discuss, think about them clearly and agree on actions.  In general each of us jots down the things we want to discuss on a scrap of paper before we set off.   I can easily jot a reminder on my smart phone if I have an action I think I might forget.  If we need to do something on a computer we just end at my office and spend a few minutes in front of it together, but you would be surprised how little we need this.”

In a recent Harvard Business Review essay Clayton, Thomas and 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.

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.  David Haimes has experienced this in his meetings with 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 convinced by now that you need to reduce your seat time and that having some of your one-on-ones as walking conversations may 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 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.

Mark it a great week.  .  .     jim



Nilofer Merchant, Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation, Harvard Business Review.

Nilofer Merchant, Got a Meeting?  Take a walk, TED2013.

Russell Clayton, Chris Thomas, and Jack Smothers, How to Do Walking Meetings Right, Harvard Business Review.

Brigid Shulte, Health Experts Have Figured Out How Much Time You Should Sit Each Day, The Washington Post