Monday, December 11, 2023

I know sitting is bad for me. But how can I cut back when it’s so much fun? | Emma Beddington

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Are you sitting down? Not because I am about to say anything shocking. Sorry – I shouldn’t scare you. I bet you are sitting. So am I. Because sitting is what we mainly do, isn’t it? Sitting is nice, a simple and enduring pleasure, unless it’s forced upon you by illness or disability. This is a shame, because it’s also killing me, you and everyone else.

You know this, probably. The “sitting is worse than smoking” messaging started in about 2010. It isn’t worse than smoking – duh – but it is “associated with higher all-cause mortality”. “People doing more than 12 hours per day sitting had a higher risk of [premature] death,” according to one of the authors of the most recent and widely publicised research on sitting and how to counteract its ill effects, which analysed data from four large-scale studies.

Of all the grim public health revelations of recent decades, this one hit me hardest – worse than the stuff about insomnia killing you, although that is fun to have trotting around in your head at 4am. I hate it because it feels almost impossible to do anything about it. I sit for more than 12 hours almost every day. That recent paper suggested 22 minutes of “moderate-to-vigorous physical activity” a day can eliminate the higher risk of premature death, but do they know how behind on everything I am?

Who has 22 spare minutes? (Admittedly, that is a fraction of the time I spend staring vacantly at walls, but that is my “process”.) My daily health trudges are too short and slow and even more modest improvements feel challenging: there is no West Wing “walk with me” when you work alone from a tiny home office. And before anyone suggests a standing desk, experience shows that, like a tray table, I am non‑functional in the upright position.

So I am stuck sitting. But, honestly, I really enjoy it. It’s my main leisure activity – I even sit down to brush my teeth – so I have found myself feeling uncharacteristically mutinous. I am usually obedient about health diktats: I eat green stuff and use those poky little interdental brushes. But this? Get lost.

I could easily become the David Hockney of sitting, denouncing the nanny state, defiantly sitting in a room full of chairs, ignoring the graphic visual warnings of amputations and engorged hearts that will soon be printed on the cushions. Perhaps I would then exile myself to a country where sitting is still respected (maybe Malta, which topped a list of sedentary places in 2012)?

It feels unfair to die early for doing my job (OK, and watching MasterChef), but there is a kind of natural justice here. Work has been killing people in physical jobs for centuries: miners, farmers, bin workers and builders. Now, workers in fulfilment centres, that modern form of hard labour, have been found to suffer musculoskeletal problems and are prone to injury. A report from the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of unions in North America, found that Amazon workers in the US suffered 39,000 injuries in 2022.

Prolonged standing isn’t much better than sitting: nurses and retail workers suffer back pain and cardiovascular and circulatory problems. It’s only right, I suppose, that those of us who work more comfortably aren’t spared. But it also contributes to my growing suspicion that work – all work – is bad for us. No one seems to have come up with a viable alternative. I would suggest a global sit-in, but, you know.

If I could guarantee a peaceful, no-fuss, marginally premature death on my sofa, halfway through a multi-episode documentary on a celebrity I don’t care about, I would go full Hockney. But the reality is, I will probably become infirm, furious and a tremendous burden; I am already most of those things. I am also increasingly sore: sciatica, stabbing shoulder pain, the works.

So, with a heavy – and doubtless unhealthy – heart, I have installed an emotionally manipulative app on my phone that pleads with me regularly to stand up, saying: “We want you to live longer.” (Creepy – you don’t even know me.) So far, the only “movement break” that doesn’t make me lose the will to live (counterproductive!) is foraging for snacks – but baby steps, reluctant baby steps.

Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist

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