April 18, 2011

Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?

We've all heard the meditation instruction "just sit," but what if just sitting leads to an early grave? A recent piece at The New York Times explores an emerging field that some call inactivity studies:

Over a lifetime, the unhealthful effects of sitting add up. Alpa Patel, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, tracked the health of 123,000 Americans between 1992 and 2006. The men in the study who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less. The death rate for women who sat for more than six hours a day was about 40 percent higher. Patel estimates that on average, people who sit too much shave a few years off of their lives.

Yikes! Maybe Buddhist teachers should encourage a little more walking meditation. Although, to be fair, the studies cited in this piece aren't talking about the kind of erect, alert, and important sitting that happens on a meditation cushion. The kind of sitting that kills is the soul-sapping, controlled corporate cubicle sitting that happens behind a computer screen. We should all give that kind of sitting a rest.  

Read the rest of "Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?"

Image: "Evil Chair," from the photostream of Dragon2309

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onezenzoo's picture

I don't know where to start! First, this is just the kind of attention grabbing non-journalism you would expect from some tabloid! Come on, sitting meditation has nothing to do with these studies! What the?
Just how many studies do you think you could list here that show the many benefits of sitting? But then that wouldn't be as interesting, huh? Talk about "soul sapping" you would have been better of standing on your head than writing this!

Nothing I have done in my life has contributed more to my well being than sitting for 20 to 40 minutes a day. Nothing.

61 and healthy,

Alan Shusterman's picture

Will, I couldn't agree more. I definitely rank my daily sit/walk as one of the most beneficial parts of my day although I can't say exactly why. But isn't it lovely to know that there might be a medical justification for the occasional twitch on the cushion, not to mention the ready-made excuse to avoid longer retreats? Keep sitting!

onezenzoo's picture

Yes, keep sitting....
All the Best.

Sam Mowe's picture

Thanks for your comment, Will. I meant for this to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but I should have been clearer. I couldn't be a bigger supporter of sitting. Good on you for keeping up your daily practice.

Now I'm going to go stand on my head.


onezenzoo's picture

Okay, now I am laughing!
I didn't get the joke...

Alan Shusterman's picture

Thanks for calling attention to these epidemiology studies. Unfortunately, your conclusion is exactly the opposite of what the researchers are saying. They are monitoring motion, and the more motionless one sits, the worse off one is. Nothing in this article talks about the mental attitude or posture of sedentary people. Sitting is sitting, whether one is "erect, alert, and important" or "soul-sapping".

Sam Mowe's picture

Thanks for keeping me honest, Alan. You're right, the studies did not say anything about sitting meditation, or any type of sitting for that matter—like you say, sitting is sitting. I was trying to have a little fun by linking this article to the instruction we often hear in meditation: "just sit."

Also, at the end of the NYT article Dr. Levine was in a "philosophical mood" reflecting on corporate America. I was piggy-backing off of that.

wtompepper's picture

As Mr. Shusterman says, these studies are not considering the reason for sitting. In fact, in their studies, zazen would be much worse than the "corporate cubicle sitting," because even little movements like "fidgeting" or foot tapping, or paperwork, would be some activity. I think what they have in mind is more the inert sitting on the lazy-boy in front of the tv. (Although, maybe lifting the cheetos to your mouth also counts as movement).

No doctor or psychologist would ever discourage "corporate-cubicle sitting" (I like that phrase!), or any other capitalist activity: they know what side their bread is buttered on.

The really important thing is that sitting zazen can very easily be balanced with physical activity. Even monks have work practice, which I'm guessing is rarely done in a cubicle.