Every physician knows that exercise is the best medicine. If doctors could write a prescription for exercise every patient would get one before he left the office. Hypocrites understood this well, and famously observed that “Walking is the best medicine”. Two thousand years of accumulated medical experience and thousands of research papers have further confirmed the fundamental insight that physical activity is crucial for health.1,2
Importantly, this activity doesn’t have to be of the “heart-pounding, sweat-drenching” sort. Walking, ballroom dancing, Tai Chi, vacuuming, it all counts. And even moving from place to place isn’t what’s important. At a biochemical level it’s simply muscular engagement that matters. So, it turns out that simply squatting, the preferred active resting posture of hunter-gatherer tribes, rather than sitting substantially improves metabolic health3.
And it doesn’t even matter if the bouts of exercise are short: as little as one or two minutes of activity are sufficient to improve serum markers of metabolic health. Every bit of exercise helps.
To sum up: almost any type of exercise in almost any dose on almost any schedule works. Why then do so many Americans suffer from an exercise deficiency?
The answer seems to be that we’ve simply been too successful creating technologies that banish muscular effort from of our lives. Cars replace running, electric bikes replace walking, elevators replace stairs, electric mixers replace hand mixing, dishwashers replace dishwashing, Roombas replace vacuuming… the list is a long string of technological successes that unfortunately add up to a monumental public health failure.
But the single most catastrophic substitution on this list was the replacement of active rest postures that our hunter-gatherer forbears enjoyed with passive chair sitting. “Ergonomic” office chairs effectively extinguish muscular activity, and because we sit for so much, over 8 hours a day on average, chairs have an outsized effect on our metabolic health. Epidemiologists estimate that passive sitting shortens our lives by as much as two years4. To give a sense of scale, curing all cancers would add about three life years, so on this metric our current chairs are almost as bad as cancer.
But there is some good news: it turns out that sitting can be hacked, making it active rather than passive. By making the seat of a chair slightly unstable, continuous subtle muscular engagement becomes an integral part of sitting, and brings with it a mandatory increase in caloric burn. A recent white paper from the University of Waterloo compared an active sitting chair (Ariel 1.0 from QOR360) to a Herman Miller Aeron passive “ergonomic” chair and found that sitting actively increased energy by 10 Kcals/hour. This works out to be 800 Kcals over an 8-hour day, the metabolic equivalent of about 3,000 steps added to a seated workday. Similar increases in metabolic rate have been reported for other active chairs.
So, is active sitting the cure for the common chair? It’s certainly the best option for many people, because unlike the “movement snacks” approach that requires people leave what they’re doing and get up from their desk, active sitting seamlessly adds movement to every moment of a seated workday.