We weren’t designed to be sedentary beings. If you look back over most of human history, we were actively using our bodies to find food and provide a healthy living for our families.
Over time, our culture has shifted to become less physically active. To find the change, you can look to first the development of agriculture, and subsequently the industrial revolution, which altered the way we process and transport our food. We no longer had to work as hard for our meals. More recently, you can see the impact that occurred 20 to 30 years ago with the introduction of personal computers, TVs and phones.
“We evolved being physically active,” said Carolyn Matthews, MD, a gynecologic oncologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. “I think being at a desk all day, instead of being at a physically active job, is not healthy for us.”
We are changing the way we work and spend our time, and some have even said sitting is the new smoking. Many Americans are overwhelmed by long hours in front of a computer resulting in numerous health problems, including higher obesity rates, which now affects more than one in three Americans.
Our culture has battled negative health trends before. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42.4 percent of adults smoked in 1965, compared to 19.1 percent in 2011. This downward trend in adult smoking took people becoming educated and committed to their health.
Finding a Reason to Exercise
Dr. Matthews helps people recommit to their health through integrative and functional medicine. The primary focus of her practice is obtaining optimal health and wellness. In addition to disease care, Dr. Matthews aims to meet patients where they are and optimize their health from wherever they start.
Part of these discussions includes creative ways to exercise.
“You have to find some reason that’s going to make it worthwhile for you to exercise,” Dr. Matthews said. “It’s like getting someone to quit smoking. They’re not going to do it until they’re ready. You have to find something that will be meaningful enough for you to motivate you to want to do it almost every day.”
Dr. Matthews spends over an hour with each patient, gathering a full health history and background. This can help her give practical suggestions for each individual. Just recently, she spoke with a patient whose mother was suffering from dementia and this patient found out she had a gene mutation that predisposed her to the effects of dementia. As part of her health goals, this patient wanted to do everything she could to avoid getting dementia like her mother.
Exercise has a number of benefits and it is one of the primary things under our control when it comes to brain health.
There are organelles in our cells that help to make energy, and when we exercise these organelles grow and divide, known as mitochondrial biogenesis, Dr. Matthews said. These organelles in our cells make energy throughout our bodies, whether it is your brain, your heart or your muscles.
“The more mitochondria and healthier your mitochondria, the more healthy you’re aging,” Dr. Matthews said.
The other thing that’s important with exercise is that you get release of a compound BDNF. BDNF is brain derived neurotrophic factor. Put simply, it makes our brain cells create more connections with one another. It’s not creating new brain cells, but it is improving our mind networks.
Stuck at a Desk? Suggestions for Exercise
Millions of Americans are sitting at a desk and feel restricted when it comes to their exercise and health. Many spend time more worried about their networks at work than their brain networks. Many are more worried about multitasking at work than the multitasking benefits of exercise, food and sleep.
A recent study reported that just two hours of standing instead of sitting each day has shown to decrease blood sugar and blood fat levels.
“Even small incremental increases in exercise help improve overall cardiovascular outcomes,” said Jeffrey M. Schussler, M.D., FACC, FSCAI, FSCCT, an interventional cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. “People who have predominantly sedentary jobs are particularly at risk, and it would appear that changing the position in which you work (standing or walking instead of sitting) can help.”
If you feel motivated to make a change to your exercise, consider the following:
- Get up. Anytime you can get up and move around at the office, take advantage of it. Instead of sending an email or making a phone call, consider stopping by someone’s desk. Dr. Matthews said one of the main reasons women require residence at a nursing home is that they are unable to get out of a chair by themselves.
- Work on your core. You may consider sharing an exercise ball in the office to help strengthen core and abdominal muscles while you’re sitting at your desk.
- Take the stairs. Dr. Matthews was impressed to see another doctor take 10 flights of stairs for a meeting at the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Dallas. She was very impressed with this physician’s commitment to health.
- Find something that interests you. Whether it’s an exercise bike at home or routine tai chi or yoga, find something you can look forward to and keep you motivated.
“Exercise is one of the great multitaskers in term of benefit,” Dr. Matthews said. “Exercise may help your brain, it may also help with Type II diabetes and insulin resistance, it can help with high blood pressure, it may help with maintaining muscle mass; simply put, it has many benefits all at the same time!”
Finding the reason that motivates you is just the beginning to a lifelong fight against our sedentary and desk-bound culture.
Carolyn Matthews, M.D. specializes in Gynecologic Oncology and has been board certified since 1995 in both Obstetrics and Gynecology as well as Gynecologic Oncology. She currently serves as director of Integrative and Functional Medicine and is board certified in Integrative Medicine and certified in Functional Medicine.