As I See It: No Sitting
May 9, 2011 Victor Rozek
Outside my window, the robins are working the morning shift, bouncing around in no apparent direction, searching for the unsuspecting worm. When they find one, they grab an end, lean back, and pull. The worm visibly stretches, like a glistening rubber band, and finally snaps into the waiting beak. After a couple of gulps, the bird hops off in search of fresh meat.
Exhausted from the excitement, I turn my attention to human nourishment: coffee. OK, not as yummy as a fresh worm, but at least I get to drink it sitting down. With all that bouncing around, and flying, and jumping from twig to branch, there’s one thing I’ve noticed that birds never actually do: sit. Sure, they lay on their eggs, but they’re not really sitting. I mean, for one thing, they’ve got feathers sticking out of their butts. So mostly they just perch on those spindly legs, hop around, and crap on the patio.
OK, so why should the average IT professional–with or without spindly legs–care about what birds do, or don’t do. Or do-do, which, have I mentioned, is decorating my patio? It’s because we’re in danger of being turned into a nation of worm eaters. Sitting–America’s pastime–is about to go the way of smoking, trans fats, red meat, and salt.
According to Men’s Health, the unhappy discovery was made back in 1953. British researchers found a troubling difference between working people who stand and those who sit–even if they are essentially doing the same job. “Sitting bus drivers were twice as likely to die of heart attacks as standing trolley operators.”
But that was more than a half-century ago, long before diet and exercise became fashionable, so as long as your grandparents weren’t on the bus when the driver keeled over, who cares?
Well, a recent study of 17,000 men and women, conducted over a period of 13 years by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, “found that people who sit for most of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of heart attacks.” And here’s the really bad news for chair jockeys: diet and exercise didn’t make a bit of difference. One of the researchers told Men’s Health: “We see it in people who smoke and people who don’t. We see it in people who are regular exercisers and people who aren’t. Sitting is an independent risk factor.”
Sitting? Aw, come on. Not only do I have to worry about toxins and earthquakes and climate change and terrorism, now I can’t even sit on my ass without endangering my health. Takes all the joy out of lethargy.
So, why in the world would a little sitting be detrimental to an otherwise healthy-eating, exercise-obsessed keyboard pounder like me? The unsatisfactory answer is that no one really knows for certain, which is not to say that at least one researcher doesn’t have a theory. And like many medical theories spawned in research labs, this one has to do with rats.
Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., points the finger of suspicion at an enzyme called “lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which breaks down fat in the bloodstream and turns it into energy.” The good doctor found that “standing rats have 10 times more of the stuff coursing through their bodies than laying rats. It doesn’t matter how fit the rats are; when they leave their feet, their LPL levels plummet.” So if you’re anything like a rat, this is probably happening to you.
How does the enzyme detect if you’re sitting or standing is another question; but if the rats know, they’re not talking. Besides, everyone knows that the primary cause of death in laboratory animals isn’t sitting, it’s research.
I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, it doesn’t take a genius to know most of us do way too much sitting. In fact, our days revolve around opportunities to sit. Like planets held in place by the invisible pull of irresistible objects, our butts succumb to the gravitational pull of anything with a cushion. We sit at breakfast, sit in the car, sit at work, sit at lunch, sit when we finish lunch, sit in the car going home, sit during dinner; and we top off a strenuous day of sitting by sitting while watching TV. It’s a hardscrabble life.
But, on the other hand, there’s something fundamentally perverse about implying that an action as benign as sitting is unhealthy–regardless of what else you do when you’re not sitting. It’s wrong, unfair, and un-American and no red-blooded couch potato with a gym membership will stand for it.
There’ll be a beer-bellied backlash against standing and it will sound something like this: By God, it’s every American’s right to sit. What are we, a bunch of ballerinas? They torture people in Gitmo by making them stand. No lab rat is going to deprive me of my constitutional right to veg. You can take that cushion from under my cold, dead butt. Without sitting, what would happen to NASCAR and lap dancing? You think the astronauts walked to the moon? No, they sat every inch of the way. Hell, you can even fight wars sitting down. Right now, some guy’s sitting on his rump in Utah, joystick in one hand, burrito in the other, piloting a drone that’s dropping bombs on wedding parties in Afghanistan. Don’t tell me that patriot can’t sit.
This is one of those stories that has absolutely no silver lining. It’s like that old joke about the guy who gets a phone call from his doctor. The doctor says: “I’ve got some bad news for you, and I’ve got some terrible news.”
“What’s the bad news?” the guy asks.
“Your tests came back and you’ve only got one day to live,” says the doctor.
What could be worse than that, thinks the guy. “What’s the terrible news?”
“I meant to call you yesterday.”
This is the terrible news. It doesn’t matter that you did everything right–quit smoking, ate sensibly, exercised–none of it counts for squat because of some enigmatic enzyme. Unless you’re a professional athlete, or a crossing guard, how are you supposed to stay on your feet? And would you even want to? Try standing all day and see how your back feels. After a few hours, a heart attack won’t seem so bad. At least you’d be able to lay down.
So maybe the silver lining is this: There’s no more need to pretend, no need to sweat and grunt and effort. No reason to haul yourself down to the gym and deprive yourself of that pint of ice cream. Stop all the senseless physical exertion and eat what you want because you’re only kidding yourself. In the end, we’re all just sitting ducks.