Lessons Learned from Sitting on My Ass for 9 Months (While Writing an Exercise Book)

Chairs. I’m now convinced they’ll be the death of us, and I don’t think a daily dose of exercise will save us. I don’t think a good diet will, either…

There’s plenty of research to support the theory that weekend warriors are in for a surprise. Scientists tell us that spurts of movement do not counteract spending the other 95% of our time desk-, car- and couch-bound. But since I always have to test things out for myself, I planted my rear in a chair for 10-12 hours a day, for nine months straight, just to see what would happen.

From August to May, I was doing research, preparing lessons, cranking out term papers, and working on — yes, I get the irony here — the exercise book.

By the time summer rolled around, it was a bittersweet celebration. I had passed my classes, been accepted at a major conference in my field, and turned our manuscript over to the publisher. But when I came up for air, I was in bad shape. Actually, I wasn’t in any shape at all… I was shapeless. My bum was flat. My abs were gone. My legs dangled from my shorts, and I could almost wrap my middle finger around my biceps.

Granted, I have long fingers. But what the hell?

It’s not that I wasn’t exercising, either. I was. Regular 20-minute sessions of bodyweight circuits in the university gym, plus zigzagging around campus on foot, and even the occasional “dance break” in the Union ballroom with one of my tango partners.

Yet here I was. Not only scrawny, but soon to be injured as well. I eagerly jumped back into my favorite physical pursuits (climbing, yoga, dance) only to end up with a knee injury right out of the gate. The muscle I was used to having was no longer there.

I hobbled into the clinic with swollen knees and odd pains, eager to blame celiac for deteriorating joints and muscle, since, after all, I was doing “everything right” with my diet and exercise regimen…

“You probably just have weak hip flexors,” they told me. “It’s common.”

Common indeed. For people who sit too much.

So I’ve spent the summer doing physical therapy instead of climbing and ballet. Taking leisurely dog walks. And only occasionally dancing tango in my tall pair of heels.

But the research was there all along.

A 2015 review of the literature published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that across dozens of studies, “Prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity.”

I had the physical proof that 20 or 30 minutes a day of movement is no match for full days at the desk and nights reading on the couch. But I imagine what was going on behind the scenes was worse. My body wasn’t happy. Not only was my muscle gone and my waistline wider, but I felt lethargic and had begun to lose my appetite.

Over time, sedentarism-despite-a-bit-of-exercise opens the door to cardiovascular trouble, cancer, Type 2 diabetes and all kinds of other chronic conditions, the authors of the 2015 review pointed out.

This isn’t to say we can’t stay fit with short, efficient strength and HIIT workouts. We can. That’s what The Great Cardio Myth is all about. But the lesson I learned through writing the book is that we also have to be conscious of what we do in our non-gym time. Nothing can reverse a bad diet or 12 hours in a chair all day.

Which is why the five-hour workday is starting to sound like a pretty good idea.

–  Chelsea

New exercise: yoga-Twister while trying to navigate chapter notes?

About

I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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