Beware the chair

Study after study has highlighted the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle that includes extended periods of sitting, and the catchphrase “sitting is the new smoking” has gained traction in the media and in popular consciousness. We asked U of T’s Greg Wells how bad sitting really is. Wells is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at U of T and an associate scientist in physiology and experimental medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children. His research is focused on developing new ways of treating disease using exercise and nutrition.

Jenny Hall: We’ve been hearing a lot in the media lately about the health threats of sitting too much. Is sitting actually that bad? Is it really “the new smoking” as we keep hearing?

Greg Wells: The physical inactivity epidemic is causing all sorts of health problems. It is associated with almost every chronic disease on the planet, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The World Health Organization has stated that physical inactivity is one of the leading health concerns for the planet, and that it is closely associated with increased rates of non-communicable diseases. Non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of death on every continent except Africa. If it’s not the world’s number one health concern, it’s pretty close.

JH: Is there any research on how much sitting is too much?

GW: We know a couple things for sure. First, humans need to be vigorously active for at least an hour a day. A very small percentage of our society achieves that. Vigorous activity is something above and beyond just walking. Your heart rate is needs to be elevated, and you need to be engaged in something that’s physically demanding for you. An hour of fast walking is an example of vigorous activity.

The other thing we know is that the more physical activity we can incorporate throughout the day, the better. This is because sitting is an independent risk factor. The more you sit, the worse your health is going to be. So in addition to getting the one hour of vigorous physical activity, the more you can intersperse physical activities like walking or moving or getting up to move around throughout the day, the healthier you are going to be.

JH: When you say sitting is an independent risk factor, does that mean that even if you get the hour of vigorous activity a day, you’re still at risk?

GW: Yes. Consider an office worker who’s going to the gym religiously for an hour a day. That’s great. They’ll be way better off than if they never did it at all. The message isn’t don’t do that one hour of exercise—it’s incredibly beneficial. We know that vigorous exercise decreases your risk of breast and colon cancer by up to 50 per cent. But sitting all day is still a problem in and of itself that needs to be addressed.

JH: Are there any guidelines for the other kind of activity you talked about—the kind we should try to be interspersing throughout the day?

GW: The best idea is to try to add short bouts of activity throughout the day. I use the 20/20 rule. For every 20 minutes of sitting, stand up and stretch for 20 seconds. Beyond that, within every two-hour block, try to find 15 minutes to do some activity, be it walking or stairs. Even just standing for a while is better than sitting down.

I tell people to stand up in meetings. If everyone else is sitting, find a spot to stand up in the back. If you’re doing a phone call, get up and do it with headphones while you’re standing.

Fifteen minutes of activity every two hours is a tall order if you’re in an office environment.

It is—until you begin to consider the significant damage that sitting causes. The other thing we have learned that’s emerging is the powerful benefit of physical activity for cognitive performance. We now know that physical activity and exercise activate the areas of the brain associated with memory, learning, problem solving and concentration. So an office worker might think they don’t have time to stretch and move, but I would say to them, you can’t afford not to. Not only is your health going to improve, but your performance is going to dramatically improve as well.

JH: So there’s case to be made the physical activity is good for your brain, too?

GW: Absolutely. I watched a documentary on Bob Marley recently. He has a reputation of being this pot smoking guy, but he was a relentless perfectionist. He didn’t let the Wailers play live until they’d practiced for two years. Before they went into recording sessions, he would make everyone play soccer on the beach. They would never go in to play unless they had been exercising beforehand. Or, if you read Steve Jobs’s biography, he never did meetings sitting down. His big creative meetings were always done walking.

I think there’s a real sound physiology to these stories, and good rationale for incorporating physical activity into your day. You’re changing the way your brain works. You’re actually flooding the area of the brain that you’re using with oxygen and nutrients. It’s like flipping a switch. The fact that we try to do creative mental work sitting down goes against the way the body and brain are meant to work.

JH: What actually happens in your body when you sit for extended periods of time?

The main thing is decreased blood flow. When you move, you push fluid through all of the tissues in the body. That is one of the main ways the body fights off illness, by pushing fluids through what is called the lymphatic system. You actually have two full circulatory systems in your body—most people don’t know that. You have your blood system that everyone’s aware of, but you also have the lymphatic system. Fluids moving through the lymphatic system are how the body catches viruses and bacteria and other invaders and filters them out and kills them. So the primary way to stay healthy is to get up and move. Beyond decreased circulation, you also get decreased flexibility and decreased nutrients supplied to muscles and the brain.

JH: It sounds like stagnation.

GW: It’s absolutely stagnation. Think about a fresh flowing stream versus water that sits. Sitting water becomes stagnant with low oxygen, and viruses and bacteria grow in it. There’s a similar effect inside the human body.

There do seem to be some parallels to smoking here if you think about sitting as a public health problem. A huge public health push—and some high profile lawsuits—in the latter part of the twentieth century changed cultural ideas about smoking. Does something similar need to happen with sitting?

We need intervention and education at every single level. We need to get physical education back in schools and to make sure that communities are built with sidewalks and parks. We need to make sure that cities get built so that people can ride their bikes. We now know enough that people should know better. I think it’s possible that employers could be held accountable in the future for not providing the opportunity for employees to be as healthy as they could be, given what we now know. We need a tremendous push on education about the benefits of physical activity and the risks of inactivity.

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Walmart and groceries

Paul Fraumeni | March 11, 2015

A little more than one year ago, Shelley Broader, CEO of Walmart Canada, announced her chain was moving fully into the grocery business. Walmart’s Canadian stores had added full grocery lines to some of its larger outlets, but Broader’s plan was to inject $500 million into expanding the number of Walmarts that offer groceries. Canada seems to have a full complement of grocery stores already, with Loblaws, Metro, Sobey’s, Longo’s, Costco and the discount stores related to some of these chains. Are we at the point of market saturation? We asked Professor David Soberman for his thoughts. Soberman is a professor of marketing and the Canadian National Chair of Strategic Marketing at U of T’s Rotman School of Management. Q. Almost all Walmarts will soon offer a full line of groceries. Don’t we have enough grocery stores already? No. The simplest explanation for why Walmart is entering the grocery market is that the population of Canada is growing, so we would expect there to be an increasing number of grocery stores. A lot of people perceive this as being a massive increase to the number of chains but if you go back 20 or so years ago you had IGA, Food City, A&P, Dominion, and Loblaws. The bottom line is that even in those days we had five or six chains. Q. So it’s more about the product line, not the number of chains? Right. The focus today is on combining a variety of product lines that used to be offered in separate stores. One-stop shopping is the key now. People used to separate their grocery shopping from other shopping. So you might go to a mall to do Christmas shopping, for example, or to buy clothing or school supplies for your children. But for your groceries, you would have to make a separate trek to the supermarket. Now, it’s all being combined. That’s the main reason Walmart is expanding into groceries. They already carry household products and clothing. Potentially this can put Walmart in a bit of a pickle because they have something like 400 stores but half of them don’t really have complete grocery sections. Now they are ramping that up so that the majority of their stores include the full grocery section. The idea is that when people think of going grocery shopping they’ll actually go to Walmart. Q. How do grocery stores distinguish themselves? Don’t they really all offer pretty much the same products? No, I think they do actually create distinct images. Sobey’s, Loblaws and Metro all have discount stores, so that enables them to compete by reaching different audiences. And even the discount versions, like FreshCo, No Frills and Food Basics, each offer a somewhat different approach from each other in the discount sector of grocery shopping. But the gold standard is Loblaws. They’ve created very much their own image with their pioneering efforts in private labels, with President’s Choice and No Name, and the collection of products they’re offering. That approach has really helped them to create differentiation. Q. What about the higher-end grocery stores, like Pusateri’s and McEwen? Do they make a difference to the overall grocery industry? This is called segmentation. In cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary or Montreal you have a certain segment of the population, maybe 5 or 10 percent, who are high-income earners who like to spoil themselves with exotic foods or imported items that cost a bit more but that offer different tastes and experiences. This is not the sort of thing sold en masse by a Sobey’s or Metro because the turnover isn’t there and these kinds of products are not part of their model. In contrast, the objective of a Pusateri’s or a McEwen is precisely to allow shoppers to find the exotic foods or imported items that cannot be found elsewhere. They charge a higher price so they don’t need the volume of a prototypical supermarket: as long as a specialty grocer like Pusateri’s has a steady flow of customers, the business model is viable. Whatever big city you go to you’ll see these types of stores. In London, England, you see Fortnum and Mason and in Paris, you see Fauchon which is the same sort of shopping experience, for wealthier people who want special jam or imported escargots imported from a certain region of France. But these grocery stores don’t have a negative influence on the business of the larger chains.   A longer version of this story was originally published by the University of Toronto. It has been edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity, and is republished here with permission. 

Entrepreneurship: not just for ...

Joanne Benham Rennick | March 9, 2015

Business schools have been teaching innovation and entrepreneurship for years. Now, a relatively new concept called “social entrepreneurship” is showing potential to expand that entrepreneurial spirit into the world of liberal arts and social acitvism. Social entrepreneurship offers a critical opportunity for higher education to drive new ways of investing in personal, social and economic advancement. The term “social entrepreneur” was coined by Bill Drayton, the founder of a nonprofit organization called Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. Drayton himself is a good example of the how to combine activism professionalism and entrepreneurship. His entrepreneurial enthusiasm and his training in economics and law allows him to advocate on behalf of complex social issues including civil rights, environmental degradation, and economic disparity. His greatest social contribution, though, is his recognition and empowerment of others. He seeks out people making positive social change to become Ashoka Fellows. Ashoka Fellows are game changers: people who effect systems-level change that improves the lives of millions by transforming the social landscape. While social entrepreneurship may have started as a subfield of business, Paul C. Light argues that the movement now incorporates at least four distinct approaches to improving the social fabric: Social Exploration, Social Innovation, Social Advocacy, and Social Safekeeping. He describes Social Exploration as an area that involves investigating and planning against social threat (think global warming, climate wars, water shortages, and population explosion). David Suzuki and his environmental foundation fit into this stream of social enterprise. Social Innovation might include developing and implementing new ideas to deal with complex problems. The Canadian education program Roots of Empathy is an example of this, as are new developments in the areas of bionics and bio-prosthetic health devices. Social Advocacy is the arena in which individuals and groups lobby for lasting change through political pressure, policy innovations, research and legal efforts. Project Ploughshares and Amnesty International are examples of Social Advocacy. Closely linked to the advocacy area is Social Safekeeping that focusses on protecting progress that has already been made but could easily disappear without constant vigilance such as human rights, global health - think Doctors Without Borders and the Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights group. I think higher education is ripe for a more nuanced approach to learning. I believe social entrepreneurship holds potential to create the kinds of leaders the world needs, while injecting some sanity and sustainability into an unbalanced economic system. It also creates a context for empowering and employing young people through innovative new initiatives that they themselves create. Muhammad Yunnus, innovator of “microcredit financing” and the Grameen Bank once said “Many young people today feel frustrated because they cannot recognize any worthy challenge that excites them within the present capitalist system. When you have grown up with ready access to the consumer goods of the world, earning a lot of money isn’t a particularly inspiring goal.” Working together with each other, community mentors and accelerator centres, students actually get a chance to first think about the change they want to see in the world and then work to become it. The opportunities for social innovation are, for good and for bad, overly abundant.    

Cosmopolitan consumers

Noreen Fagan | March 5, 2015

Canadians eat more sushi than Japanese people, according to Mark Cleveland. Cleveland is a professor of marketing at Western University. His research focuses on the integration of cultures on a global scale and the effects of cosmopolitanism, which according to Cleveland is, “the cultural openness and the ability to successfully navigate between different cultural groups.” In other words, people who want to understand and experience other cultures do so by fully immersing themselves in that culture. “You want to live the life of cultural authenticity, by trying to understand the culture through that culture’s eyes,” he says. Cleveland’s interest in cultural openness started when he was a Master’s and then a Ph.D. student at Concordia University in Montreal. He started researching how new immigrants, primarily ethic minorities, adapted to Canadian culture by finding ways to combine their traditional identities, culture and values into mainstream society. “I have always believed that just because you learn another culture does not mean you give up the original culture. You can be bicultural or multicultural and the two can reinforce each other,” says Cleveland. “Not only are minorities affected by cultural exchange but the majority are as well.” Canada’s multiculturalism prompted Cleveland to extend his research into globalization, with a focus on how global cultures affect majority populations around the world. In the last decade Cleveland has conducted research in 15 to 20 countries exploring cultural exchange and cosmopolitanism. He says a person no longer has to travel abroad – although it helps – to become cosmopolitan. A person can experience different cultures in the comfort of their own home or neighbourhood, simply by watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing videos on You Tube or buying and consuming different products. “When we buy products, and types of brands and the reasons for buying them, they are like extensions of ourselves,” he says. So how do the sushi–eating Canadians fit into all of this? Cleveland believes if a person wants to experience cultural authenticity they will gear their shopping towards achieving that aim. In other words, a person is not going to go for the North American version of sushi (think Californian Roll), when they can get the real thing – think Unagi. He says there is probably a general global trend towards cultural openness as people become more educated and have more exposure to other cultures but he warns, there is another side. “A lot of people are really opposed to what is happening with Globalization and they see their culture as under threat,” says Cleveland adding that the threat is heightened when people feel insecure. If people are feeling secure in their surroundings (financially, emotionally and physically), the more open they are to cultural exchange and the more cosmopolitan they become. Being cosmopolitan however, does not mean buying local is a thing of the past; in fact what makes cosmopolitans stand out is that they strive for cultural authenticity. “The more cosmopolitan you are means you are not only interested in preserving differences but also interested in the environment, like getting the best locally,” says Cleveland. In terms of cosmopolitanism Cleveland thinks Canadians are more accepting of other cultures. “We are a new country, most of us go back two or three generations and have one or two grandparents born somewhere else. We have a more fluid identity,” he says, adding that as large cities go, Toronto is well integrated. “We are not just living in these areas dominated by our own ethic group, there are more opportunities to mix, and I think that allows us to become more open-minded.”        

It’s not the ...

Araina Bond | March 3, 2015

Social media has changed advertising and marketing so drastically that companies can barely keep up, and consumers have had to completely rethink the influence advertising has in their lives, when many ads are embedded, targeted and constantly popping up in their browsers. Robert Kozinets has been thinking about the meaning of our relationship with the online community since the mid-nineties. Netscape was the hot new browser. If people thought about the Internet at all, it was mainly for online shopping. Flash forward almost two decades, where a world without Facebook and Twitter would be unimaginable. Now his efforts to understand the relationship between ethnography and brands, consumer culture and technology have become even more relevant to daily life. Kozinets, a Professor of Marketing at York University, explains that social media allow the consumer to connect with brands more directly. The overt agenda of traditional advertisements can create consumer skepticism, but independent bloggers seen to offer more objective reviews of products and services. “I try to help the business community recognize there are human qualities online,” he says. “Somewhere along the line the humanity got lost.” Back when he was completing his PhD at Queen’s University, Kozinets pioneered the concept of Netnography, an approach that seeks to understand the relationship between culture and online communities. “These days, you don’t engage with brands directly,” he explains. “You and the Old Spice Guy,’ for example, have a relationship because you use it with your boyfriend to spice it up, to joke and tease. The brand is being used to strengthen your relationship.” Some companies employ people to interact with the public, specifically to protect their image, increase brand awareness and generate sales. Taco Bell, for instance, has won media attention and awards for engaging directly with its followers, crafting a persona that is funny, hip and media savvy. Their team in charge of @TacoBell uses a winning combination of hashtags, retweets, pithy comebacks, and funny life hacks to win over followers and customers. Though Kozinets believes this trend supports consumer engagement, he also sees that many businesses can be unaware of the strength of this approach and therefore underutilize it. Consumers, on the other hand, have been also been employing social media as a way to assert their voices. An ill-treated musician who flew on the airline created the Youtube video “United Breaks Guitars,” which went viral. In the end, its popularity led United Airlines to make reparations for ruining the musician’s guitar after months of his dealings with customer service led to nothing but frustration. Kozinets believes that this situation is far from simple: “Anthropologists have a long history of looking at changes such as colonization for the benefits as well as the drawbacks they bring. Technology and marketing culture are like that too. In some ways they empower some people, for some purposes. In other ways, they create new challenges, difficulties, and inequalities. It is our job to trace them out and try to follow them, rather than believing the hype or the pessimists.” However, all this time spent online, Kozinets warns, has inured us to the fact that governments and companies have access to our very personal information. “Who is watching the watchers?” he asks. Academic voices have been mostly muted on this topic. He sees some progress being made within business schools, pointing out that it’s a mistake to see them as the lapdogs of corporations. Highly critical research, he explains, can lead to improved legislation that protects privacy, and this would make the online experience – now a part of everyday life – a safer and more secure experience for everyone. “More complicated?” He asks. “Yes. More interesting? Definitely.”      

Carpooling: there’s an ...

UOIT Staff | March 1, 2015

Fuel and insurance costs, parking fees, vehicle upkeep, traffic congestion, weather conditions and sheer time spent on the road. No matter how you slice it, commuting by car in the GTA tests every driver’s patience. And it certainly takes a toll on the pocketbook. One way motorists can get around the financial roadblock of commuting is to share costs by setting up a carpool. But even getting a carpool off the ground can be a trying task: how do you find people who are going where you are? How do you know where to meet someone? What if schedules change? “We examined all of these questions and looked for a way to create an app-based tech solution to tackle the challenges that prevent carpooling,” said Hamid Akbari, Assistant Professor,Faculty of Business and Information Technology at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “Our answer is Blancride: an innovative carpooling platform that matches passengers with drivers who share the same travel needs.” Blancride works through smartphones as a customized message-board. It automatically balances the costs of each trip between each passenger and driver, simplifying the financial transaction and lowering the cost of each individual’s trip. Blancride takes a small fee for performing the service. “Passengers who use Blancride are sharing costs with the driver. Our cost-sharing platform is designed to be an affordable, commuter-friendly option, or to complement public transit. Costs for passengers are often comparable to public transit and significantly cheaper than a taxi.” Blancride is completely different from taxi services, which take direction from the passenger on final destination and receive payment for that service. With Blancride, drivers don’t make a profit: they only share their costs for the route they already intend to drive. Prices are calculated with a cost-per-kilometer amount, which lets passengers and drivers know the full cost of the trip before taking the ride. Blancride runs on iPhones and Androids and is accessible 24/7. As a new ride is offered or requested, the system calculates the appropriate matches and notifies the matched users. “If you use the app to tell us where you are going, then we'll show you who you can share that ride with. We encourage all drivers to post their planned rides because this helps people get around, day or night.” After working on the concept and design, Dr. Akbari reached out to his global network to build a team that shared his passion. The team is comprised of more than 30 individuals from North America, South America and Europe, and 13 UOIT students and alumni. He also partnered with Spark Innovation Centre to help Blancride open its doors and start growing as a company. More recently, Blancride was accepted to the Faculty of Business and Information Technology incubator, a for-credit program that promotes student entrepreneurship at UOIT and helps the university’s tech-startups grow and become globally successful. With the support of his faculty’s incubator, as well as his Dean, Dr. Pamela Ritchie, and Associate Dean Steve Rose, Dr. Akbari’s Blancride app was launched in November 2014. The app is available currently only to students, staff and faculty at UOIT and Durham College, but Dr. Akbari is encouraged that in Blancride’s first two weeks, 470 people signed up with about one-third being drivers. “New carpooling lanes are being built all the time, so we know governments at all levels are committed to support carpooling,” said Dr. Akbari. “Blancride makes carpooling easy. We know there’s always going to be a market for affordable transportation. We’ve uncovered a great new way to match supply with demand.”
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