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Holly Erskine

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sitting is the new smoking.
Being mindful of your body's position in space, especially for prolonged periods of time, is integral to your well being.


Jim Dives for the Shipwreck while Koyper supervises

Koyper oversees a physical challenge, one of the "three legs on the chair of happiness".


I've altered how I write, over the past two years, as a result of a load of new epidemiology on sitting. Who knew this was such a dangerous profession! Fortunately, I love these changes. I swear I write better because of them. I hope that sharing my story will help liberate those of you who are also trapped staring at various shiny rectangles.


Not long ago we heard that exercising an hour a day places you in the "very active" category, and--hooray!--you're safe. Now you're not. What bothered me about this new data is that, although short-bout exercise is undeniably life-prolonging, limiting exercise to one daily time slot doesn't counteract the greater damage from spending the rest of the day in a semi-paralytic state. Prolonged sitting, even in "very active" people who exercise routinely in concentrated bouts, increases the likelihood that you will die sooner. I have been one of these people.

Besides teaching, I try to write for a living, which used to involve sitting all day. If you can't already tell, I'm moderately hypochondriacal, which comes from reading too many medical journals. Channeling the energy of my self-centered worries into writing health articles transforms my fears into something more useful, or at least more fun. For years I've tried compensating for my self-inflicted writerly torpor with righteous exercise for at least thirty minutes a day. Now I know this is not enough.

Sure, I still run or do some sort of aerobic workout daily, to manage my innate neuroticism. Tim appreciates the results of my morning neuroticism management routine, which is reinforcing. Running along the ever-changing splendor of rural Door County roads elates me, besides. Sitting at a computer for hours doesn't elate me. It can be downright cramping and painful.

So, I've reconsidered my writing mechanics. Perhaps you too, sense that sitting in a C-shaped position for hours isn't wholesome. Our ancestors did not live this way. It doesn't feel right, does it? A body that is not dead expects to move when it's awake. It's time to listen to our bodies about all this sitting business.

Movement nourishes your brain. Nature provides case studies. Animals that play are the smartest. Think about it. Monkey vs. slug IQ? Monkeys win. My cats insist on playing energetic cat games with enigmatic cat rules, immediately after they eat their cat breakfasts. My 2016 New Year's resolution is to indulge them with a wand toy, on the Energy Depletion Zone, also known as our kitchen area rug, following breakfast. They expect this, now, and love it and beg for it. It is just what you do after eating cat food. I think they are all on to something.


One animal story highlighting the link between movement and brains arises from the sea squirt. This organism swims about with a primitive brain, but once anchored safely on a rock, it has no need for a brain, which consumes valuable energy. So it digests its own brain. “It turns out only a mobile creature needs a brain,” says neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinas, in I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self, on this phenomenon. Lesson: don't let your butt eat your brain. A brain's primary purpose is planning and guiding movement, therefore movement nourishes your brain. In other words, if you don't move, your brain will deteriorate. This is bad news for writers.

Movement does more than increase oxygenated blood flow to the brain, a mechanism which is only one of hundreds of others recently uncovered by researchers. Wiggling your toe sends feedback along sensory neurons from your toe to your brain, which is reminded, better take care of that toe. Previously inactive genes get expressed into proteins that go about doing that, and your new toe-mindfulness molecular infrastructure improves your balance. It makes sense. Discovering the number of brain maintenance molecules, neurotransmitters, and growth proteins produced as consequences of simple movement inspires me to move more.


One exercise-generated protein, brain derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, gained celebrity after psychiatrist John Ratey breathlessly dubbed it "Miracle Grow for the brain". It aids the production of new neurons, something we once thought was impossible. His popular book, Spark, explains several mechanisms underlying how exercise benefits a surprising variety of brain troubles, from depression to anxiety to dementia.


It isn't just about growing new neurons, either. A recent surprise is that white matter, or myelin, remakes itself in response to movement, as do support cells called glial cells, once thought to be nothing more than support and maintenance for neurons. Now we suspect glial cells do far more.

Don't our best ideas land in our heads apparently from nowhere, when we are in motion? Sitting still trying to come up with great ideas appears counter productive. I pity my poor students imprisoned behind desks. I give them breaks. So what I am doing, trying to bludgeon smart writing out of my brain while immobile?

If you value organs other than your brain, which is my personal favorite, consider that prolonged sitting is linked with dying sooner from heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. There are various hypotheses. One suggests that moving muscles consume blood sugar more continuously during wakefulness, promoting a healthier metabolic status. Another observes that prolonged sitting decreases activity of a gene called lipid phosphate phosphatase I. This gene's activity helps keep your blood from clotting, but appears unimpressed by short term exercise. Several other blood clotting factors are impacted by immobility. Some folks run the risk of dangerous deep vein leg clots if they're immobilized on long on plane flights; this is just an acute example of what appears be a slower process for the rest of us. There are probably multiple mechanisms beyond blood clotting. I'm eager to learn what they are, but in the meantime I am taking action.

You may not need to change your sitting routine as much if you are a lucky, fidgety, NEAT person. That's Non-Exercise Associated Thermogenesis, something so important that researchers gave it an acronym and publish thousands of papers about it. Researchers even invented special underwear to quantify the NEATness of bolder folks than I. NEAT people risk fewer health problems than people who are not NEAT.


I'm not NEAT. I was once so proud that my grade school teachers appreciated my capacity for stillness, but now I know it's a disadvantage.

You could be NEAT without even knowing it. An inherent obliviousness appears integral to fidgeting, which can be annoying to those of us who are not NEAT. I'm frequently startled out of my writing trance by Tim, who works in his recording studio in our house, below my office: rat-a-tat-tat! rat-a-tat-tat! (He is always leaving the studio door open, defeating the elaborate sound proofing.) And think, there he goes, he is tapping some part of his body again and he doesn't even know it. At first the interruption annoys me, but then I smile because I know it's good for him. He is one who will sit all day long at a computer. But he is constantly tapping something, and far more mobile than most people, sitting down. I don earplugs.


NEAT people make themselves apparent to me because they generate more noise than they know and I'm easily distracted. I want to say, excuse me, did you know your body is talking? When I'm lecturing, NEAT students periodically unleash a series of what seems to me deafening pen-clicking sounds, click-a-click-a-click! I'm startled into silence. A few painful seconds elapse under my dumbstruck gaze until Pen Clicker grasps that they are the source of the disruption. I've even had overly vigorous twiddlers occasionally fling their pen across the classroom, which surprises them.

Tim unknowingly snaps his toes, taps his fingers, jiggles his legs, shakes his feet, around and around. It's like this endless seizure traveling around his body. I find this movement fascinating from a neurological point of view. I've wickedly enjoyed recording it surreptitiously for up to half an hour with my iphone before he catches me and tells me he is quite peeved by my voyeurism of this mechanical expression of his subconscious. I feel like a naturalist documenting some exotic animal! I can hear David Attenborough narrating: "And here is the restless toe. Observe how it dances about with its partners." His twiddling is usually quiet, although sometimes when we are reading in bed I hear whish! whish! whish! and I ask him to please stop snapping his toes so I can concentrate. He says he doesn't even know he is doing it. Lucky man!

I've no idea how to begin fidgeting. I think you are born with it. It's probably genetic. When my in-laws visit, our house is filled with a chorus of strange snappings, tappings, and atonal whistling. Earplug time for me. The rest of us must discover clever ways to move in the meantime.

So, now physiologists are encouraging us to talk on the phone while balancing on one foot (not as easy as you think!), to brush our teeth on our tiptoes, and to stretch during commercial breaks. When I warm up my coffee in the microwave, which takes one or two minutes, I do leg lifts or squats or whatever silly dance I want to do, and hope our shades are closed to people walking their dogs out on the street.


Get rid of the remote control. Take the stairs. Chop your vegetables. Grow your vegetables! Walk or bike to work. The latest, cutting-edge style of office meeting, if you are in an enlightened business, is taken while walking around the block. If you have the courage, ask your employer if they would mind walking during the next meeting to see what happens. It's supposed to stimulate innovation, plus you are far less likely to fall asleep.


I now often write at a counter, standing up. I now have a dedicated standing station, when I feel like using it, in my office. It's really high tech. It is a bookcase. I put a dictionary on top to get my laptop to the right height. I have a cushy rug placed at the base of it, for standing on.

Creating a variety of writing positions frees us from our mental ruts. There is also research suggesting we memorize better if we study in different locations. It used to be that technology, or the lack of it, forced us to assume one position with a boat-anchor computer or typewriter. Remember those? I'd emerge from fixed-locus writing sessions with the creepy sense of being a disembodied head wired to distant, typing fingers, and definitely less healthy. Now at least we can get mobile writing devices, like laptops, and write in different spots. Even so, most people still write sitting down. 


I think the important thing is to listen to what your body wants. Does it want to stand now? Sit now? There is no one perfect position. Thank goodness.


It's so refreshing to write standing up! You would be amazed how good it feels to write standing up after you have been sitting a long time. Such a simple change, too! Or try the floor. Go for diversity. I love being on the floor, because I feel like a kid again. It makes me want to get out the crayons. (The only problem with being on the floor is that my cats view it as an invitation to walk on me and my laptop.) Part of me expects to be told to sit in a chair like a proper adult, like I am getting away with something. I always grade chemistry papers on the floor now. The chair just feels too work-related, and when you are grading papers, you need all the fun you can get.

The Ideal Sitting Position is something the makers of thousand-dollar business chairs would like you to think that they alone understand. They would like you to purchase it from them. It doesn't exist. Tim invents medical devices, and after complaining about his own immobility, thought up yet one more invention to add to his list: a monitor that slowly moves around as you work, forcing you to slowly adjust your position with respect to it. (Practical jokes involving setting a coworker's moving monitor to high speed instantly come to mind.) Or, you can find a way to manually move your workstation around periodically, by raising or lowering your tabletop. Some people set timers to go off to remind them to stretch. I don't need that, I use my bladder which is even harder to ignore.

One day I'd had enough. I am fortunate to own a treadmill. If you don't have a treadmill, you could find one at a gym and try this. I highly recommend earplugs if you find ambient noises from the gym distracting. I found a wooden board, and placed it across the arms of the treadmill. I placed my laptop on the board, and set the speed to less than one mile per hour. Slowly walking, I was delighted to find I could type very easily. Not only could I write, but that imprisoned feeling was gone. I'm free! In fact, I swear my brain feels more stimulated, more creative, when I write this way! This wooden board has become so precious to me as a writing tool that I took a marker and wrote on both sides DO NOT REMOVE THIS FROM THE TREADMILL in case some husband might be scrounging around for firewood. Treadmill writing is my top favorite way to write. When my brother in law, Paul Erskine (he plays "Andy" in The Emissary), visited last, he gave it a try for office work, and was hooked on it, too.

Encouraged by this success, I pampered myself by purchasing an under-the-desk peddler (Inmotion Stamina brand) for under 100 dollars. I commune with the spirit of the hamster, spinning away while I write. My peddler isn't motorized, and I was worried about that when I first bought it. I was pleased to find, once I start wheeling, the momentum keeps my legs spinning. It was a great purchase.


It provides variety, and I love it almost as much as the treadmill. Sometimes I rest, sometimes I pedal. There is no perfect state; I think the message here is that we have to try different positions, including sitting still. It's cross training for writers, and your body will tell you what it needs.

I have provided a few methods here for working around your own personal chair of doom. Perhaps you can invent your own unique solutions, too. I hope this piece inspires you to break the chains to your chair. May you be blessed with health and freedom.