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Career Advice

Is sitting the new smoking?

Tips to encourage both professors and students to move around more.

BY BILLY STREAN | AUG 19 2021

You’ve probably heard that “sitting is the new smoking,” a phrase perhaps coined by James Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, who told the LA Times, “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”

While the case has been somewhat overstated, extended periods of sitting do indeed increase your risk of obesity, back and neck pain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, deep vein thrombosis, Alzheimer’s, dementia, anxiety, depression and early mortality.

Perhaps the smoking analogy is relevant because studies have repeatedly shown the effects of long-term sitting are not reversible through exercise or other good habits. Sitting, like smoking, is very clearly bad for our health and the only way to minimize the risk is to limit the time we spend on our butts each day. The reason why is that extensive sitting changes your body’s metabolism. Gavin Bradley, (cited in Fiorenzi, 2021) director of Active Working, an international group aimed at reducing excessive sitting, explained part of the process, “Metabolism slows down 90 per cent 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 per cent. Just getting up for five minutes is going to get things going again. These things are so simple they’re almost stupid.”

As educators, our applied concern is to provide opportunities for standing and movement – both for ourselves and for our students. With apologies to Adam Ant, Bob Marley, Ben E. King, Tammy Wynette, and Reel 2 Reel, I offer several activities and practices, so we don’t take learning sitting down.

Stand and deliver

In the spirit of “put on your own oxygen mask first,” let’s address how you as an educator can take care of yourself and set a great example. In a typical classroom setting, you probably do most of your teaching standing up, yet remote teaching has moved many instructors to their chairs. Using a standing desk or home-made solution, you can deliver your remote teaching while on your feet. You may find it helps your vocal quality and your alertness while keeping you from the deleterious effects of your being on your derriere.

You may assert, “Wait a minute, I work out several times per week.” The evidence demonstrates that although exercise is definitely beneficial, it fails to negate the harm that results from extended periods of sitting. Time-on-tush is an independent risk factor. The solution for too much sitting is not more exercise. Exercise is wonderful, obviously, yet most people could never do enough to counteract the effect of hours and hours of bottoming out. Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, Leonardo DaVinci, and Winston Churchill (who lived to be 90 years old, although never got tenure) all stood at their desks.

Get up, stand up

Prior to suggesting some more pedagogically profound possibilities, let’s begin with a truly simple notion. At least once during a class, merely invite students to stand up and move a bit. Providing one minute to stretch, have a bio break, or even grab a snack can be a valuable addition to promoting wellbeing and it likely will increase attention if you have been lecturing. Various reports show when listening to a lecture, attention drops precipitously after 10–30 minutes. You can be more creative by playing music, leading some exercises, or including a course-related task. Depending on the length of your class, you may add multiple opportunities to arise. Experts recommend getting up every 20 to 30 minutes to do any kind of activity to prevent all of the problems that can come from extended periods of inactivity.

Stand by me

One of the most tried-and-true, popular active learning strategies is the paired share. We add to this pedagogical masterpiece the notion of leaving one’s seat while engaging with a partner. In a classroom, this is as easy as adding “stand” prior to “turn to the person next to you.” In remote delivery, putting pairs in breakout rooms with the invitation to stand while sharing their ideas produces the same result.

Whereas some students may have initial resistance to ingrained class habits, evolution is on your side. Protracted sitting is a very modern entry in our ancestral record. Our physiques have not developed to accommodate deskbound lives, nor should they. I like the way chiropractor RJ Burr (2020) put it, “Think about it: we used to dedicate full days to hunt for our next meal. Today we’re almost to the point where a pizza can be drop-shipped to your doorstep by a drone. The former is like the Iditarod (a famous dog sled race in Alaska), where the latter is equivalent to wiping your own behind. The physical exertion required is the difference between player versus spectator at a sporting event.”

Stand by your man (or woman)

A great way to disrupt your chair-bound class is a “line-up.” This can be done easily in a classroom and can be modified with some creativity for remote delivery. In any class conversation where there are a variety of views on a topic, you can invite students literally to “take a stand” along a continuum represented from one side of the class to the other. As a light-hearted example, in my communication course last term, the classic debate arose: pancakes vs. waffles. The ardent flapjack proponents could demonstrate their view by standing by the front left of the class. The extreme waffle enthusiasts could show their conviction by moving to the front right of the room. The various more moderate positions could represent their preferences with the appropriate locations. This method can also be used to set up students into pairs for discussion or to take opposing sides for a debate.

While increasing active learning and engagement, you will be helping students to avoid back, neck, and sciatica pain from sitting, and cause calorie-burning to climb, and speed the breakdown of dangerous blood fats, raising ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.

I like to move it (move it)

Personally, I quite enjoy being active and – teaching in a faculty of kinesiology, sport, and recreation – the students in my classes may be more positively inclined toward movement than other members of the student body (for those who enjoyed that pun, no pardon necessary). Yet due to challenges of attention span, an excellent way to elevate energy and engagement in many contexts is with physical movement. It is ideal when movement can be incorporated directly with the intended learning outcomes of the day, but short activities purely to shift attention and awaken the students are beneficial. Teachers can use their creativity to invent options that work best in their own contexts. There are bountiful ways in which you might incorporate movement to enhance and deepen student learning.

Take a stand for a stand

Joan Vernikos, former Director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, suggested that every time you stand up, you benefit from a shift in fluids, volume, and hormones, and muscle contractions, and almost every nerve in the body is stimulated. The typical person in hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies spent nearly the entire day performing low-intensity muscular work or ambulatory activity (and reportedly no time on Zoom). Epidemiological research over the past 50 years has shown conclusively and repeatedly that inactivity is a major risk factor for death, primarily due to increased coronary heart disease.

People can’t combat the effects of sitting with a half hour or hour of exercise alone — standing throughout the day is the answer. David Dunstan, associate professor at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, echoed this sentiment, “the frequency of physical movement is the most important consideration, not the intensity of the movement.” So you don’t need to do CrossFit while standing at your desk, just make sure you’re not sitting for more than 20 minutes at a time.”

Billy Strean is a professor of kinesiology, sport, and recreation at the University of Alberta.

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  1. Violet Vlchek / August 24, 2021 at 10:19

    This is a very readable and worthwhile article. I have never been concerned about sitting because I am active. So that was a myth dispensed for me. I would like to forward this, but don’t see a forward arrow.