Get Up Offa That Thing!

08/13/2014 04:04 pm ET | Updated Oct 13, 2014

The King of Soul and apparent exercise physiologist, Dr. James Brown, had the science down cold when he gave his listeners the following prescription: "Get up offa that thing, and dance and you'll feel better."

Because as an editorial in the latest edition of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings proclaims, sitting is unhealthy. An accompanying research article suggests that the sedentary life may be less unhealthy if one manages to maintain good physical fitness despite the excess chair time, but it's still unhealthy.

The editorial, "The Chairman's Curse: Lethal Sitting," by Dr. James Levine, a nationally-recognized expert on obesity and inactivity, points out that being sedentary and out of shape is not only unhealthy, it's unnatural. We humans were designed to be active creatures, if not dancing to Dr. Brown's "Hot Pants," then at least walking, climbing, digging, chopping, lifting etc. Then along came the Industrial Revolution, and we traded in our physically demanding agrarian past for a much plusher, convenience-riddled urban existence. From the plow to the office chair!

Levine writes

Bring on the T.V. remote. Swap out the rake for a leaf blower. And because the task was just too damn exhausting, yes, how about an electric can opener! You've seen it yourself, a parade of cars trolling slowly through the parking lot, opting to circle back for the chance at a closer, more convenient parking spot.

We declared war on physical exertion -- and it looks like we've won. According to Levine, an average American worker can clock 13 hours of sitting in a day, compared to a Jamaican living in an agricultural community who sits for about three hours.

But as Levine has chronicled in this and other writings, the Culture of Convenience has not been a healthy one. While physical exertion (what Levine refers to as "NEAT -- Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis") has plummeted, calorie intake has not, and that's left us fatter than ever.

How does anyone stay lean in this high-calorie, low-exertion world? They stay active -- not by climbing Mt. Baldy after lunch, or by dragging their groceries home on a travois, but by keeping moving in mostly small ways. They willingly will take the not-so-convenient parking space, the crazies! According to Levine, high NEAT, lean people are up and strolling about 2.25 more hours a day than obese people, and they burn an extra 350 kcal in the process.

It appears that some people are just wired to be more fidgety and active (I'm a self-professed spaz), while others more easily develop a symbiotic relationship with their chair, as Archie Bunker did. Levine cites research showing that lean animals seem to have higher activity in the areas deep within the brain -- the hypothalamus in particular -- that regulate physical activity.

That might make it harder for those who have a genetic predisposition to sit, but as Levine suggests, our living environment is likely to be a much stronger influence than our genes. Environments that make it easier (or even necessary) to walk or pedal, where activity is incentivized (and inactivity disincentivized), can make a demonstrable and positive difference in how people feel. According to Levine, studies show that active schools and active offices have less stressed and more productive students and workers.

Levine closes his editorial by using San Francisco as a template for what I might call "Dr. Brown's 'Get Up Offa That Thing' Health Initiative." In 2013, the average travel time by foot for residents of San Francisco was 4 minutes a day. By implementing leg-based travel initiatives, average commutes would be increased by 18 minutes, avoiding a potential 2400 premature deaths each year, and racking up approximately $34 billion a year in health care cost savings.

That puts a new spin on the old slogan, "Move it or Lose it."