Why To Exercise Today: Inactivity As A Disease, And One $17 Treatment

standing desk
My standing desk: Laptop on a cheap little pink table

Sometimes a single well-turned phrase can change you forever. That's what happened to me a few months ago when I heard the director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, Dr. Eddie Phillips, say, "Sitting is a disease state."

He was speaking to a lunchtime symposium of Harvard medical students about "Lifestyle Medicine," a field that aims to get doctors to tackle the bad diet and exercise habits that underlie so many of their patients' diseases. And he was explaining why the students were invited either to sit on big balls or to walk around the seminar table.

The phrase reverberated in my mind when I got my new desk in the WBUR newsroom, to the point that I bought this $17 table and now spend about half my time with my laptop perched on it, standing and shifting my weight as I type. (Two of my colleagues were already doing the same, improvising with piles of books or boxes beneath their keyboards.)

And I thought of it again when I saw this NPR post: "Should lack of exercise be considered a medical condition?" It frames the disease state a bit more broadly than sitting, as inactivity in general. And it asks whether doctors should literally diagnose "deconditioning" or "inactivity" in their patients who don't exercise, to help them understand what a reliable precursor of disease it is.

At some point in the last few decades, the human race went from being a species that is active most of the time to one that is increasingly sedentary. The Lancet recently called it an "inactivity pandemic," responsible for 1 in 10 deaths worldwide. That's a major shift, and a major public health problem, many researchers have pointed out. Inactivity is linked to heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.

Now Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic, argues in a commentary out this month in the Journal of Physiology that one way to deal with the problem is to make physical inactivity a mainstream medical diagnosis. It's one of the most common preventable causes of illness and death, and Joyner writes, there is "one universally effective treatment for it — exercise training."

Read the full post here, and if you devise an ingenious standing or treadmill desk, please click on the "Get in Touch" button below and send us photos. This is a trend that seems destined for wildfire status...

This program aired on August 22, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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