All of us, regardless of our age, have some very old things in us. It is generally viewed that humans have not notably evolved in the last 200,000 years (1). This is significant because although we have not changed much internally, the environments we inhabit have altered substantially in the last few hundred, and especially fifty, years. Arguably at our cores we are no different from our ancestors, and yet the way we now live is vastly different than in any previous time.
Arguably, we are not built for our modern demands.
For hundreds of thousands of years we were hunter gatherers, living in groups, tribes and clans. Life was likely harsh and physically demanding, but despite this it is believed that the life expectancy at this time was 54 if you made it to fifteen years old (2). A way to think about this statistic is that only the strong survived.
Time passes, and then came the agricultural revolution. Around 12,000 years ago livestock was tamed, yearly crops grown, cities and states were formed. Across the world societies and our daily demands stayed relatively constant until the industrial revolution pulled us out of the fields and into the factory. The harnessing of electricity allowed work shifts to extend through the night, no longer limited by the available daylight. Our day was no longer paced by the seasons and the sun, now just the punch of a clock and the work week.
From there technological advancement has moved at a blinding pace. Automobiles relieved the need for walking or horseback riding to transport, radio and then television relived the need to leave ones home for entertainment. With the invention of the Internet and all our current “smart” technology, we find ourself now in the Information Age. The day, now, never ends. The steady glow of a screen is always available, and often pulling.
We are born into this world with the backing of over two million years of human evolution. We all greet gravity, air and light as a bunch of screaming, demanding balls of energy. We are born neuro-logically immature, and the first two years of development appear to be largely reflexive (3). No one really understands how the child knows to cry for attention; or what drives the infant to curiously explore the world around us, but we all seem to have these abilities. No one really knows what drives the undeveloped human to crawl and stand up, but we all do it. There are things in us that drive us up and outward.
WE ARE BORN WITH THE ENERGY OF A THOUSAND SUNS
Spend any length of time with a child and you will recognize we are all granted an endless supply of energy (provided we have the motivation to drive our curiosity and the calories to fuel it). We are innately interested in the world around us and driven to engage it. Arguably the only thing that changes through our lifespans is the motivation; the belief that there really is something interesting out there. We enter this world with presets that are handed down to us, and although they work to gain motor skills and attention for food/comfort when we are infants, they are seemingly mismatched to the pace and nature of our current society.
Our modern day lifestyles and demands are truly unique in the history of the human race. The technological advances and conveniences of our modern first world have enabled us to live more comfortably than ever before.
We can sleep in climate controlled homes, and binge on inexpensive calorie rich food without walking far for it. We can socialize without traveling or actually physically gathering, just our thumbs and fingers doing the work. We can travel great distances, faster and more easily than ever before (as long as you’re willing to sit for it). But this convenience has become inconvenient, in that in some ways it is contributing to both subtle and severe health problems.
It has recently been argued that our evolutionary advantage over other species relied on, amoung other things, our ability to run for long distances (4). We evolved to run/move all day, and crave high energy foods to fuel it. Without this, we would not have survived our pre-first world lifestyles. Physically we thrive on challenge, and our current culture does not afford us the challenges we have seemingly evolved to flourish under.
Compared to all previous times there is a shocking lack of physical demands in what characterizes our daily lives. Intensive, myopic, fine motor, visual and cerebral demands with a lack of prolonged or varying physical challenges make up our modern days. We become conditioned to sit, look at screens, and then transport our heads to look at various other screens. We sit to work, sit to travel, sit to eat, sit to socialize, and sit to unwind or be entertained. We have become professional chair sitters, and ultimately at times chair shaped. After all; you get what you train.
Despite the achievements of world class athletes progressing every year, the fitness of our general public has declined steadily in the last few decades. Obesity rates have steadily increased both in the general public (5), as well as in the armed forces (6,7). Not only does this heavily contribute to health problems but it has also been pointed to as a source of increased failure rates of military fitness testing (7).
So clearly we need as a culture to move more than we are, and if social media is any measure, it appears that there is a rise of awareness of this. Unfortunately, though, increasing regular exercise alone does not appear to be enough.
IT IS ALSO WHAT WE DO WITH THE HOURS WE ARE NOT EXERCISING
It is common knowledge that regular exercise is essential to to the maintenance of our general health. However, it does not appear that regular exercise cancels out the effects of habitual prolonged sitting. Yes; too much sitting is distinct from not enough exercise (8). Think about that; it does not matter if you get in regular exercise if you spend the other 8-12 hours of your day sitting.
In fact, recent studies have shown that prolonged sitting, independent of lifestyle factors (including diet and exercise), is a risk factor for obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes (8). The volume of cumulative time sitting shown to be most impactful is eight or more hours daily. Even more sobering is that sitting daily for eight hours or more is an independent risk factor for pre-mature mortality (9, 10, 11). This means that we are more likely to die pre-maturely if we lead sedentary lives outside of our daily exercise habits.
How does prolonged sitting effect us so much? While the exact mechanism is still broadly unknown, there is growing insight into the biological effects of sedentary physiology. Prolonged unloading of skeletal muscles has been shown to have negative effects on local blood triglyceride levels and increase local blood glucose levels (12, 13). Meaning; it cuases high cholesterol and a pre-diabetic state. Fuel is stored in our muscles (not just fat deposits) for energy expenditure. In the case of prolonged unloading, it is as if our body decides that since we are not using the fuel, we might as well release it into the blood stream. A rough analogy, but it works. Thankfully, these effects are temporary, as a period of walking/moderate loading was shown to reverse the results. The lesson; move.
Sadly, high levels of prolonged sitting is also associated with increased risks of anxiety and depression (14, 15). Studies have shown a positive relationship, meaning that the more sedentary behavior you have, the higher the risk of reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression. Just as exercise (whether mild, moderate or intense) has been show to be an effective mood stabilizer (16), it appears a lack of it can wear on our psyches.
Now standing helps in that it does seem to require more energy than sitting, and is not associated with negative metabolic effects. However, workdays of static standing is not a desirable option as it does not really do as much good as one would hope. In fact, prolonged static standing (defined as eight hours or more) has its own host of health problems (17). These include an increased incidence of reported low back pain, increased incidence of leg edema and chronic venous insufficiency, and even an increased risk for pre-term birth (17). Whether we sit or stand, humans do not tolerate stasis well.
Truly we are designed to keep moving, and no ergonomic desk design will change this. Static postures are meant to be interspersed events in our day, not the mainstays. It is ourselves (not just our workstation) that often needs the change, and how we wrap our days around that desk, computer, phone.
THE EFFECTS OF OUR LIFESTYLES HAVE AN EVEN BROADER REACH
There are two other deliterious effects of our modern lifestyles worth noting; and they both have to do with daylight.
It appears that it is not just our arms and legs that require a variety of activity; our eyes do as well. Myopia, a condition where objects far away are not easily seen, has had a recent significant increase in incidence in the US, Europe and Asia over the last several decades (18, 19, 20). Previously a condition the typically effects the minority of any population, recent estimates of prevalence have been staggering. In urban China, it is estimated that 78.4% of 15 year olds are now myopic (20). In Taiwan, the prevalence for 17 year olds is 84% as of the year 2000, when just ten years earlier it was 74% (20). In the early 1970s myopia was estimated at 25% in the general US population ages 12 to 54; in years between 1999-2004 it had risen to 41.6% in the same age group (18).
But what has changed in order to cause this? The answer may be industrialization and the screen you are looking at.
When further studied, a significant link was observed between time spent studying, reading, and most notably indoors and the incidence of myopia (20). The more time that a child spent indoors, studying, greater the likelihood of them developing myopia. The opposite is also true, with the children who did not develop myopia spending much more time outdoors comparatively. Across cultures, there is consistent higher incident in urban populations compared to those living in rural areas. What is hypothesized from this is that exposure to daylight aides in proper development of the eye and visual function (20). However, it is still debated whether the cause is truly more complex.
Our brains are wired for vision as a primary mode of perceiving our environments. Walls, ceilings, books and screens three or less feet from our faces have only been the norm in recent decades, much more so in recent years. Besides exposure to daylight, we have likely evolved to scanning our periphery, the horizon, look to the distance and back at our immediate surrounding. Staring at books and screens, does not provide this. All this trains is looking at things immediately in front of us.
Besides exposure to daylight being important for our eyes, it appears to be vital for our overall health as well. Night shift work, now more common than ever before, has shown to be associated with many severe health risks. These include an increased risk of cancer (21); insomnia and sleep apnea(22); as well as coronary artery disease and gastrointestinal problems (23). It is suspected that this stems from disruption of our circadian rhythms and hormonal regulation that seems to hinge on sleeping when it is dark, and functioning awake when it is not.
Typical human sleeping patterns have been observed to be consistent across indigenous cultures, and only occurring at night. These cultures are observed to stay awake a few hours typically after sunset, then sleep fairly soundly through the night, arising consistently at dawn (24). Midday napping was observed in summer months a portion of the time, but otherwise all members were awake and function during daylight hours. It is only since the harnessing of electricity that we have been able to prolong lit productive working time into the night, despite this being counter to our apparent needs. Our modern society has more 24/7 demands than in any previous time, and some of us are the unfortunate few that work these unnatural shifts in order to support the rest.
ALL IS NOT LOST, JUST HABITS TO BE MADE
If you identify the problem, you can often identify the solution. This does not mean it is always easy or convenient, but in this case, it is incredibly simple: Inject a little (or a lot) of third world living into your first world days.
What does that mean?
It means move more, more often, at the very least hourly not just daily. Third world means taking both standing and squatting/crouching postures in our day, not just sitting. It means getting outside in the sun, more often, daily at least. Fresh air is great but we also need to see the sun. Third world means sleeping when it is dark, and arising with the sun. Again, move more, more often.
The movements you take can vary from changing from sitting to standing more often, to squatting down the ground, to simply prioritizing walking breaks throughout your day. This could mean walking to talk with a co-worker instead of emailing, taking the stairs, or simply even regularly parking further away from the store to get in just a little more activity. Truly this requires a paradigm shift. Learn to see the opportunities to move in your day as little moments of nutrition for your body and mind.
If you are concerned with how to fit this in to your already busy day, consider that moving more might actually might make you even more productive. It has been shown that regular mild to moderate exercise not only improves mood and sense of well being (16) but cognititive function (25) and memory (26). Not only do you feel better; you think better. Perhaps this is part of why so many great thinkers throughout the ages have turned to a long walk to aide in their work. The brain can only take as much as the butt can, and our bodies prefer to move.
Unfortunately many of us cannot get away from the sedentary computer based work of our modern lives. In these cases obtaining a sit-stand workstation may be a viable option for decreasing the strain of our work lives. This not only allows you to change positions at will and to comfort, but has has been reported as more desirable than a traditional sitting desk by the majority who trial them with no effect on productivity(27). Anecdotally, I have almost never heard a negative word spoken about it by those that have made the change.
A less culturally acceptable option is to also look at your options for chairs/sitting posture. It is interesting to note that the idea of sitting has not always involved slumping on the modern standard height chair. Humans evolved to rest comfortably in a deep squat, kneeling or cross-legged, and many cultures still sit on the ground (28). The Japanese even have a name for it, calling it seiza, which is the traditional formal mode of sitting. In fact all children tend to sit comfortably on the ground until we encourage them otherwise. Not to mention that nearly all of Africa, Asia and India comfortably sit much lower than our current chairs. This is to say; most non-western, pre-modern cultures sit on the ground. What is now normal for us may not truly be normal for humans.
Now, this is not to suggest that past cultures or times had it all figured out. Modern science has helped us peak under the hood of common observation, and we have created many solutions to thousands of problems, diseases and misfortunes. Many things that would have killed us in earlier times can be dealt with easily due to modern technology and understanding. It is accurate to acknowledge that our modern technological progress has occurred for good reasons and often with great results. We just have to be cautious to not progress beyond what we need to thrive.
Being aware of our inherited tendencies can be very insightful in understanding the possible drivers of ones habits. Again, spend any length of time with a child and you will recognize we are all granted an endless supply of energy and interest in the world around us. Arguably the only thing that changes throughout our lifespans is the motivation; the belief that there really is something interesting out there. The ability to see the world through the eyes of a child is often noted by brilliant scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and even the many elderly that have rediscovered the joy in every moment.
Take this a step further and attempt to engage the world through the habits of a child; with your feet, arms and legs, not just two hands and eyes.
Our modern days are intensely cerebral, often causing us to be stuck in our heads, detached from our bodies and the ground we walk on. Take time everyday, throughout the day, to pull your head back into your body, and move about. Your days will be ever better for it.
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