An Interview on Commuting, Sitting, and Managing the Effects

I was recently interviewed by Meg Boberg of Los Angeles-based Traffic Byte about the challenges of commuter life- the average commute in the US today is now over 46 minutes. The one defining feature of commuting in a car is the inability to stand up, and the increasing amount of time spent sitting is a problem for most of us in this modern age.

So I thought I'd share some of our conversation about how the body deals with this kind of sitting, and what we can do to reverse the effects of too much sitting. 

Meg: How does the body respond when we stand versus when we sit for extended periods of time?
Dr Joan: Think of the body as toys that you need to shake to keep them working. The body needs to move up and down in relation to gravity to keep the blood circulating and tune the machine that pumps the blood around – not unlike a car. Gravity then pulls the blood down to the feet while the heart and arteries pump the blood against gravity up to the head to fuel the brain. Unlike the rest of the body that converts what we eat to glucose, the brain needs the blood to transport the oxygen and nutrients, mainly glucose, to supply it with fuel to function. No fuel, or running on low, compromises how the brain works.
Standing up and sitting down or lying down and standing up again is how we do it. Doing so once a day and expecting it to work all day doesn’t do it.

Every time you stand up the blood is drawn to the feet by gravity – plain hydraulics. The sensors in the neck register reduced volume topside triggering the heart to begin to pump harder.  This increases heart rate and raises blood pressure thereby increasing blood flow to the brain. If you stand up often you will hardly notice anything was happening. If you have not stood up for a while, as with a couple of days in bed with the flu, you may pass out because your pumping system is out of shape. You faint because your brain is not getting the blood supply to carry the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function. Start moving again and you quickly recover.

If you stand up or sit down for too long the blood stagnates in the feet and legs (encouraging swollen feet, blood clots and varicose veins) and even though the heart and pumping system may work well for a while eventually it slows down or quits. So, neither uninterrupted extended sitting nor uninterrupted standing are good for you. Guards at Buckingham Palace learn to squeeze their muscles periodically to pump the blood up. 

Meg:  What are some of your suggestions for office workers, who can’t control the fact that they must commute to work, sit during office hours and may sit even more when they go home?
Dr Joan: Office workers who commute by train or who sit at work or when they get home need to structure their lives to introduce frequent opportunities to stand up often throughout the day until they become habits. They can do this with electronic or web-based reminders, by getting out of their chair to communicate with others – more sociably rewarding – or drink water, or use the restroom, but not all at once, as well as using the stairs instead of lift or escalator. In other words, consciously take every opportunity to incorporate movement of all kinds into the day. They also need to sit up in as upright a chair as possible. Slouching or tucking legs under the chair cuts off the circulation to and from the legs even further. Upright posture with feet flat on the floor encourages unobstructed circulation even when sitting. Working at upright desks and upright desk treadmills are fads that are hard to sustain. A new sliding adjustable desk - the XTensionDesk - looks more promising and can be adjusted to your height and your best work level from sitting to standing – better for your back as well.

Commuter driving is bad for your health not merely because you are sitting. But if you have to, choose your work hours carefully to avoid stress and minimize the drive. Do not have a full breakfast before you start. The combination of stress, sitting and a full stomach that draws blood to your stomach and away from your brain is lethal. Use the slow traffic and traffic lights as an opportunity to practice deep breathing and some isometric leg contractions. Make sure the seat is at optimum level and back position for upright active posture. Introduce using the stairs, taking a walk, using the gym for short periods; shower immediately on arrival at work to provide a time-out between your commute and beginning of the work day.

Meg:What are some of the detrimental effects of prolonged periods of sitting?Dr. Joan: Recent studies have linked increased mortality of hours of uninterrupted sitting per day to breast and colon cancer. Deaths from cardiovascular disease have also been linked to too much sitting even in people who exercised.

Sitting is a leading cause of obesity, Type II diabetes, bone and muscle loss, joint problems, back pain, depression and reduced immune function.

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