I have decided to start my book review column with a bit of (or a lot of) energy with James A. Levine’s entertaining and informative book “Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.” First of all, even his title is genius. Your chair is killing you! Stand up, walk, run away! Our chairs are coming to get —wait, this isn’t a book about inanimate objects coming to life? Well, maybe not but surprisingly it’s just as exciting. Though, I should add zombie chairs to my list of really bad short story ideas. [Author’s note – If you are excited by the idea of inanimate objects coming to life, check out the film Rubber.] Okay, enough silliness, let’s get back to the book.
A one sentence summary for this book would be: Humans shouldn’t sit as much as they do. However, the book goes about defending this statement in a plethora of entertaining ways, shares an abundance of both social and scientific research, anecdotes and success stories and provides a multitude of tools that we can use in our own lives in order to sit less, walk more, and revel in the subsequent physical and mental health benefits. The author is extremely successful in his delivery. The short chapters are easy to devour in a single sitting, and entice the reader to read further. The tone of ‘Get Up’ is clever and funny, a huge feat for a book on such a serious topic. I even found myself laughing out loud at some anecdotes while sitting in the train. The book’s greatest triumph is that I genuinely enjoyed reading it. Sometimes it takes a few weeks to slog through a non-fiction book, but this one I couldn’t put down.
Dr. James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D., is a world renowned researcher who has spent his career coming up with educational and technological solutions to health problems such as obesity. So he’s a guy that knows what he’s talking about, which makes his book extra attractive to me. One of the most important aspects of the book, and of Dr. Levine and his colleagues’ research is NEAT (nonexercise activity thermogenesis). NEAT pretty much refers to the calories that we burn during a normal day that are not related to intentional exercise. They are the calories we burn when we are not trying to burn calories. A person who is very active, and spends most of their day on their feet, walking and moving around, would have a high NEAT score, meaning they burn more calories than a person who spends the majority of their day sitting (low NEAT).
This concept, which makes perfect sense, is unfortunately frequently overlooked by those who are overweight, trying to lose weight or trying to improve their exercise level. Essentially, this research has explained why people who move around more during their regular day-to-day lives experience lower rates of obesity, and the horde of accompanying health issues, than those who are mostly sedentary. Levine refers to the less active group as Homo sedentarius (I love the insinuation that our species has evolved in the wrong direction), and requests that you visualize Homer Simpson sitting on his couch. He also includes short lists of questions for you to ask yourself throughout the book, so that you can see which side of the active/sedentary spectrum you fit into. My favourite example is question 8 from his Chair Test in the Introduction. “Look at your sofa. Does it have an imprint of your buttocks?” I must sadly admit that yes, it does. Oh man, now I feel guilty about sitting here while I’m writing this. I need to take a short break and walk around my room.
The effect of this book is that it really opened my eyes to how much I sit and how little I move around. Having worked in an office for years, I am used to the mindset that if one is not sitting and looking at his computer, he is not working productively. I used to spend hours in the same position at my desk with my eyes fixed on my computer, only to come home and slip into the nicely formed buttock indent in my sofa. After a day of sitting, I just felt tired and wanted to sit some more, especially if I was having a bad day. In the office, it was very common for people to purposefully drink high amounts of water during the day, just so they would have to stand up and go to the bathroom every few hours. Without this biological reminder, many would stay seated all day.
Levine and his team set out to change all of this in their various projects such as the chair-free Office of the Future, where standing or treadmill desks and walking meetings became the norm. Clearly, it is necessary for such a concept to be generated, or at least approved, by leaders or bosses, but it is empowering to think that even in the stuffiest of offices, many people are beginning to work while standing. Twenty years ago, not many people were sitting on yoga balls at the office, but now it’s not an odd sight to see. Perhaps in another ten years, standing desks will be more common than seated desks. Perhaps what is missing is that we, the workers, take the initiative and demand healthier working conditions.
The team took their research even further with what is not only the most eye-opening but also the most devastating part of the book, the School of the Future. I say it is eye-opening because it is both so obvious and yet so unorthodox that children should be allowed to move around while they are learning. The studies showed overwhelmingly positive results in the children’s health and test scores after attending the new school and being free to move their bodies and be active, while at the same time mastering equivalent curriculum to that of traditional schools. What is devastating to me is the fact that this active form of educating children is not more mainstream, and is certainly not available where I live. I live in a rather traditional country where the rules and regulations do not tend to evolve with new scientific research, and remain strict and old-fashioned. After hearing about the benefits of an active school environment (especially the example of the little girl who no longer had to take her ADHD medication), it hurts to know that so many children don’t have the opportunity to learn in a classroom that is so much more suitable to their biological nature.
Upon finishing the book, I did truly feel inspired and I have made changes in my life, though I know I still aspire to change much more. I bought a cheap pedometer, that I’ve used for two week intervals during times when I feel that I need a bit more incentive to be more active. It’s great having the visual reminder that my step count for the day is low (on an extremely lazy day it was under 600), and it’s equally exciting when I reach a new high (over 25,000 steps while visiting the city of London). Note, Dr. Levine doesn’t expressly recommend using a pedometer, but I didn’t want to splurge for something like a Fitbit or other exercise gadget right away.
I’ve also discussed the book with many friends and family members and have tried to help some of my more sedentary loved ones get inspired to just try to do a little bit more each day. For many, the idea of going to a gym or joining a sports club seems uncomfortable and daunting, but if they know that they just need to take a few more steps, the road to better health doesn’t seem as alien. My only disappointment is that I haven’t been able to find the book in languages other than English, as I had wished to buy a copy for a non-anglophone friend.
I’m still not as active as I’d like to be, but that’s all part of the journey. At least I know that if I need a bit of extra inspiration I can flip through the pages of ‘Get Up’ (or press my thumb to the right side of my ebook reader) and remind myself of all the alternatives to a sedentary lifestyle. With that, I challenge you to do something drastic right now. Stand up, walk away from the computer or put your tablet or smartphone down, and count until you’ve reached 100 steps, just to see what it feels like.
You can learn more about James A. Levine and his research here: Juststand.org