Like many writers, I spend a lot of time sitting still. Maybe even more than most.
While I’ve always known activity is better than inactivity, like most writers I assumed I could balance the two in some fashion. Say, nine hours in front of the keyboard might be compensated for with thirty solid minutes of insane activity that left me gasping for breath and aching for days afterward. Lots of pain, lots of gain, so to speak.
I had this mathematical security blanket shattered early last year when it was reported that no amount of exercise could ever compensate for sitting still even for only a few hours a day:
The study followed 4,512 middle-aged Scottish men for a little more than four years on average. It found that those who said they spent two or more leisure hours a day sitting in front of a screen were at double the risk of a heart attack or other cardiac event compared with those who watched less. Those who spent four or more hours of recreational time in front of a screen were 50 percent more likely to die of any cause. It didn’t matter whether the men were physically active for several hours a week — exercise didn’t mitigate the risk associated with the high amount of sedentary screen time.
Like many writers who read that damning research I first denied that it applied to me because I’m not Scottish. In fact I’m mostly English, and as anyone who can read a map knows, England is all the way at the southern end of Scotland. In fact, England is so far away from Scotland it’s almost touching France. And you know how healthy the French are, despite rampant alcoholism and heavy smoking.
Given that I don’t drink or smoke and that I’m practically French, I told myself I had no reason to worry. Yet the report was so brutal and uncompromising, and I’ve spent so many years sitting absolutely perfectly still, in the back of my mind I thought I might die retroactively — say, back to 1994.
In the aftermath of the Scottish research some people questioned the conclusions, and there was some wrangling over data, and maybe some important variables might have been neglected, but all in all it was a fairly well-received assessment for such a bleak study. Particularly given that pretty much the entire civilized world watches at least two hours of television each day even if their house is on fire. I mean, two hours? That’s not even a single sporting event.
Because I’m never going to be a very active person I finally did the only reasonable thing I could do. I lopped twenty years off my life expectancy and began to live accordingly. More daydreaming, less concern about actually being a responsible citizen, etc. (One of my variants on this theme is pretending I’m stinking rich, which motivates the idleness.)
And I moved on. Until a couple of weeks ago that is, when I stumbled on an equally depressing column written by one of those Gotham writers who is already light years ahead of where I’ll be health-wise (“I run for three or four miles most days…”), but who somehow also manages to do more hand-wringing about health than I’ll ever be able to muster (“Fat seeped insidiously into my blood, liver and ventricles…”).
In a nutshell:
Studies of daily movement patterns, though, show that your typical modern exerciser, even someone who runs, subsequently sits for hours afterward, often moving less over all than on days when he or she does not work out.
The health consequences are swift, pervasive and punishing.
And it’s all downhill from there. Except, toward the end…there’s this:
When the volunteers remained stationary for the full seven hours, their blood sugar spiked and insulin levels were out of whack. But when they broke up the hours with movement, even that short two-minute stroll, their blood sugar levels remained stable. Interestingly, the jogging didn’t improve blood sugar regulation any more than standing and walking did. What was important, the scientists concluded, was simply breaking up the long, interminable hours of sitting.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I’m writing I often break up my work with two-minutes strolls — many of which include bounding up or down a flight of stairs — so that I can stare at the infuriatingly static contents of my refrigerator. And of course there are trips to the bathroom, and pacing back and forth, and hunting for the remote which somehow keeps migrating from its rightful spot next to the keyboard. In fact, on close inspection, there seems to be no end of interruptions to what I thought were endless hours of immobility. (This may also explain why I don’t actually to get a lot of writing done.)
I’m never going to jog four miles a day. Or three. Or one. But as long as I’ve been writing I’ve been making regular trips to the fridge, and I know I can keep that up for at least another decade. I’m not saying that will compensate for living a sedentary life, but maybe I don’t need to knock twenty years off my life span. Maybe I’ll only lose thirteen or fourteen. And did I really want to live those years anyway, given how sedentary I’d probably be, and how worried I’d be about being sedentary?
— Mark Barrett