I come from a long line of subsistence farmers. My family emigrated from Spain in the 1700s and I grew up on the same plot of land that they farmed in a traditional manner for hundreds of years. Small farming is no easy task. From managing the animals and digging the ditches to sewing the seeds and tending the soil, it is a difficult life. I attribute my athleticism to growing up on our farm. Throwing bales of alfalfa and digging fence post holes were regular tasks among a slew of long hours of heavy labor. We can imagine how much more difficult it was for my father and his father before him, with no tractor, no running water, and only a kiva fireplace for heat. He even had to walk to school in the snow, uphill, both ways. You get the point.
We humans as a species are made to move, for long hours pushing and pulling heavy things, traveling long distances, and often while carrying and tending to children. When we look at hunter-gatherer data, we see that sedentary living is few and far between. Most hunter-gatherers have been “civilized” over the last half century. Civilization has brought modern food and amenities that have created obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. Before this transformation, they were digging up tubers with their hands, walking upwards of 20 km a day, and carrying a full-size kill back to the camp. And they still found time to dance, have sex, fight, and politic. It has been approximately 1.8 million years since humans started looking more or less like they do today, anatomically. That’s 1.8 million years of a skeleton designed to lift, squat, run, hang, throw, dance, and fight.
The dramatic transition from hunting and gathering to subsistence farming with a beast of burden still allowed for a lot of movement. But it was the transition from the beast to the internal combustion engine that marked a massive reduction in human movement. My grandfather got his first Model A Ford in the 1930s, and as his life changed, so did that for many Americans during the era. The horse and carriage became the 9N tractor, far more efficient at pulling a plow. Fast forward to modern 2016: the average American sits for 13 hours a day. Compare that how much our grandparents moved, not to mention our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We know now that sitting can shorten life expectancy as much as smoking can. All-cause mortality, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes risk goes up significantly the more sedentary that your are, even if you take the time to exercise. I’ll say that again: your workout doesn’t cancel out the negative effects of sitting all day.
These data are clear. Sitting is one of the biggest health problems the modern world has faced. Combine this with refined food, and we have ourselves a pandemic of very expensive health concerns. This doesn’t mean that you should run out and quit your desk job. (Poverty and stress are significant health risks in and of themselves.) But if you are sitting for more than three hours a day, you are dying a lot faster than you should be. And trust me, you will probably feel a lot better if you got off your duff. There are ways to manage your health despite the typical American job and I challenge you to make the change. This is a call to action. If you are one of the millions of Americans stuck behind a desk all day, you need to change your lifestyle.
Think about your average day. You may get up and drive to work, walk to your desk and sit until lunch, when you then drive again to the local Applebee’s and get a burger, then only to spend the rest of your afternoon sitting at the desk again. Most people drive home, order out and sit watching the TV for a few more hours after the work day until tired and then to bed. This is a lot of sitting. A good first step is to tally up the hours of sitting and incrementally reduce them to a manageable and reasonable time frame until you are sitting for only three hours or less. Remember: your life depends on it
Let’s now imagine how this same day could look: wake in the morning and cook your meal, get on the bicycle and ride 16 miles to work (the average American commute distance). Throw away that cushy office chair at your desk and exchange it for a standing desk. Eat your salmon salad at your desk and spend the lunch hour talking with a friend while walking at the local park or open space. Return home feeling invigorated and ready to take on the evening of preparing food with your family and enjoying quality conversation with your loved ones.
A lot of people really enjoy the gym, myself included. It mimics all the digging ditches and hoisting of hay bales that my childhood accustomed me to. It’s also a tremendous stress relief and there is a mound of science that validates strength training as a means of weight loss, bone density, and even cognitive function. So making room for this in your day is an investment in yourself, your health, and the future of your family and friends. Let’s face it, this life is all we have. I don’t mean to get all metaphysical on you here, but really, taking care of the only possession that you actually own (your body) is the only real investment that makes sense. Invest in movement.