If You Don’t Want a Shriveled Brain and a Big Butt, You Should Read This

I’m glad I got your attention. The size of your brains and butts is at stake here. If you sit most of the day, your brain may be shrinking while your bottom expands. This is serious business.

Couch Potatoes Have Shrunken Brains

A growing body (no pun intended) of research shows that physical activity stimulates new cell growth in the brain. This new cell growth helps counter-balance factors that contribute to brain atrophy. Among many contributors to atrophy are stress and aging—both of which are inevitable for lawyers and other business professionals. On the other hand, physical exercise ignites new cell growth. Fit people actually have bigger brains than unfit people. Not surprisingly, then, greater amounts of physical activity (particularly aerobic) have been associated with improvements in memory, attention, verbal learning, and speed of cognitive processing.

Couch Potatoes Have Bad Health and Die Sooner

As if shrinking our brains isn’t enough, sitting too much has other bad side effects. Studies have linked too much sitting to, for example, obesity, diabetes, blood pressure problems, cardiovascular disease, and colon cancer. In his book Eat, Move Sleep, Tom Rath warned that “[s]itting is the most underrated health threat of modern times.” (Tom walked the talk and wrote that entire book almost entirely while walking at a slow pace at a treadmill desk.) Dr. James Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, agrees, saying that excessive sitting is a “lethal activity.”

While too little aerobic exercise may contribute to brain atrophy, too much sitting is a distinct problem with its own effects. People can meet public health guidelines for physical activity but still have elevated cardio-metabolic health risks due to prolonged sitting. One study found that, even among those who exercised regularly (e.g., seven hours per week), those who spent the most time sitting had a greater risk of all-cause mortality.

A study of TV-time watching (a sedentary activity) found that, compared to people who watched less than two hours per day, people who watched four or more hours of TV had a 46% greater risk of all-cause mortality and 80% greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Research suggests that reducing sitting time to three hours daily could add two years to the average U.S. life expectancy.

Coach Potatoes Might Have Bigger Butts

And if all of the foregoing wasn’t scary enough, sitting too much also could make your butt bigger. A recent study indicated that when fat cells are stretched too much—as are the cells in our bottoms when we sit—those cells produce even more fat cells. The study suggests that the pressure that we place on our bottoms’ fat cells when we sit could contribute to increased bottom fat. True, this was a laboratory study conducted on mouse fat cells. But, for me, this is not an area in which my typical lawyerly skepticism is going to get in the way. Do you really want to take your chances?

Get Those Potatoes Moving!

I have to admit that the above research scared the ba-geezus out of me. Although I exercise regularly and run the occasional half marathon, my pedometer exposes me as a so-called “active coach potato.” Because I sit most of the day while working, I meet the guidelines for a “sedentary” lifestyle (i.e., less than 5,000 steps per day). Given all of the above, I’m feeling inspired to get up out of my chair right now, aren’t you? Here are some ideas to try out to add more activity to your workday:

  • Walk, jog, or bike to work.
  • Park your car a long way from the door.
  • Take a fitness break for 3-5 minutes every hour to move around.
  • Go speak to a colleague face-to-face rather than by phone or via email.
  • Pace while on the phone.
  • Stand while talking to colleagues.
  • Have walking meetings.
  • If you’re hosting a meeting, introduce a physical activity break, like stretching, half way through.
  • During lengthy meetings, tell people it’s perfectly acceptable to stand in the back of the room if they need a break from sitting.
  • Stand during meetings rather than sitting at conference tables.
  • Walk somewhere with friends for lunch rather than eating at your desk.
  • Organize daily “energy” breaks in office conference rooms to get people together and moving. Try a little yoga, dancing to energetic music, military calisthenics—whatever sounds fun that people will do without too much eye-rolling.
  • Sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair.
  • Buy a treadmill desk for your office.
  • Buy an adjustable desk that allows transitions from sitting to standing.
  • Purchase a mini step machine that will fit under your desk.

Firms also could jump on the bandwagon and find ways to encourage people to move around more during the day. Among other things, firms could consider covering all or part of the cost of health-enhancing technology (treadmill desks, steppers, etc.) and offer the technology as prizes for social activities or achievement of performance goals.

Physical activity frequently is among the first casualties of professionals’ busy schedules. Given the substantial evidence that exercise enhances physical and mental health, it may be in firms’ best interest to nudge people in the right direction. It certainly is in all of our own best interest to get moving to keep our brains firing and keep everything else in proper proportion!


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Chu, I-H. , Buckworth, J., Kirby, T. E., & Emery, C. F. (2009). Effect of exercise intensity on depressive symptoms in women. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 2(1), 37-43.

Duman, R. S. (2005). Neurotrophic factors and regulation of mood: Role of exercise, diet and metabolism. Neurobiology of Aging, 26(1), 88-93. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2005.08.018

Hellmich, N. (2012, August 13). Take a stand against sitting disease. USA Today. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/story/2012-07-19/sitting-disease-questions-answers/57016756/1.

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Hillman, C. H., Erickson, K. I., & Kramer, A. F. (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: Exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(1), 58-65. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nrn2298

Owen, N., Healy, G. N., & Matthews, C. E. (2010). Too much sitting: the population-health science of sedentary behavior. Exercise Sport Science Review, 38(3):105–113.

Rath, T. (2013). Eat, move sleep: How small choices lead to big changes. U.S.: Missionday.

Sitting down ‘makes your bottom fatter’ (2011, December 6). Retrieved from http://www.nhs.uk/news/2011/12December/Pages/sitting-makes-bum-bigger-fat.aspx

Shoham N., Gottlieb, R., Shaharabani-Yosef, O., Zaretsky, U., Benayahu, D., & Gefen, A. (2012) Static Mechanical Stretching Accelerates Lipid Production in 3T3-L1 Adipocytes by Activating the MEK Signaling Pathway. American Journal of Physiology – Cell Physiology, 302, C429-C441. doi:10.1152/ajpcell.00167.2011

Vlahos, J. (2011, April 14). Is sitting a lethal activity? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17sitting-t.html?_r=0.

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