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How much can you take?

by Frank Forencich on December 23, 2010

“Sedentary living is the most prevalent disease, biggest silent killer and greatest health threat facing developed countries.”

Dr Richard Weiler and Dr Emmanuel Stamatakis
University College London

The human mind-body is not designed to travel across the Pacific at 35,000 feet. Long bouts of physical inactivity, especially in a cramped, seated posture, bring physiology to a standstill and wreak havoc on the spirit. I was reminded of this fact on a recent flight from Seattle to Hong Kong, the first leg of an Exuberant Animal tour.

Sitting on an airplane for such an extended duration gave me ample opportunity to reflect on the perils and miseries of physical inactivity. As a long-time physical activist, I am keenly sensitive to such challenges, but this flight seemed especially onerous: the hours crept by with the speed of plate tectonics, minutes stretching into eternity as I craved physical freedom and movement. Not only was my body suspended in mid-air and divorced from the earth, it also seemed suspended in time. Squats and lunges in the aisles could only do so much.

Making things worse was the realization that my fellow travelers seemed oblivious to their predicament. They weren’t squirming in their seats or showing any signs of discomfort. In fact, they moved their bodies only when bladder pressures reached critical levels. And even when we were finally released from confinement at our destination, I could sense no relief on their part. For most, the experience of being caged in a metal tube for many hours seemed perfectly normal and acceptable. They showed no apparent need for a remedy, an antidote or a counter-measure.

And so I began to wonder: How much inactivity can I or anyone else tolerate? What are the limits of human inactivity? At what point will people begin to act out in defense of their physical freedom and health? These questions rattled around in my bored and suffering body, but as I fought my way through the time zones, I began to realize how crucial this issue is for our lives in the modern world. Indeed, as modern technology forces ever longer periods of inactivity onto our bodies, it now appears that “inactivity tolerance” will be a major limiting factor in what we can do with our lives.

Sadly, the prognosis does not look good. As I suffered my way across the Pacific, I recalled a notorious incident from December, 2006 in which passengers were stranded on the tarmac in Austin, Texas for NINE AND A HALF HOURS, unable to get off the plane. I wondered what conditions must have been like in that aircraft cabin. How did people respond to their incarceration? Was there anger? Threats? Action? Did passengers demand release and charge the door? If not, why not?

In the aftermath, one passenger did step up to file a lawsuit against American Airlines, charging “involuntary detention.” According to FlyersRights.org, an organization formed after the episode, the judge wrote that the court was “sympathetic to the plaintiff,” but ruled that the airline had no duty to provide passengers with “a stress-free environment.” He found that the plaintiff had never personally told the pilots or the flight attendants that she wanted to deplane so there was no “willful detention.” So, apparently, these passengers sat, passive and inactive, until the doors were finally opened. I can only wonder if they finally moved their cramped and suffering bodies once they were released into the terminal, or did they simply catch a bus and go sit somewhere else?

Cases like these do not bode well for the fate of the human body. Not only do they demonstrate the triumph of domestication over our wild animal nature, they also reveal a tragic disconnect with our physical bodies. Not only are we willing to sit for endless periods of time, we have become oblivious to the sensations that would normally signal physical distress and impending disease. We can no longer sense (or choose to ignore) the feelings of lethargy and physical apathy that come with prolonged physical inactivity–the sludgy, toxic sensations that creep up on us over time. We have become oblivious to the protests of our own flesh.

Not only that, we fail to create personal counter-measures and remedies for those times when we’re forced into inactivity. We take physical inactivity for granted, as a normal fact of life. Rarely do we ask the important questions about our health. For example: When faced with a long period of physical inactivity, what will I have to do to feel good again? How long will it take to get back to feeling normal? What will I need to do to recover my exuberance and vitality? What actions will I perform? Will I run, stretch, lift weights? In my hotel? In the park? What is my plan for recovery?

One might suppose that such questions and strategies would be addressed as part of a comprehensive physical education program. Surely PE teachers, as visionary experts in matters of health and the body, would be stepping up to help students develop action plans to maintain their health and physical vitality in an inactive world. But in fact, we see no such thing. PE remains an isolated specialty, a discipline dedicated primarily to sport and fitness training. A student may learn how to throw a curve ball, but she certainly won’t be learning counter-strategies for sedentary living. A student may study the proper form for a lay-up, but he certainly won’t be learning how to listen to the sensory feedback that comes from prolonged physical inactivity. Obviously, there is a gaping hole in our curriculum.

Ironically, the orientation that would help us most right now is right in front of us. Functional athletic training is now the rage in many gyms, clinics and conditioning facilities around the world. Thanks to pioneers such as Vern Gambetta, Gary Gray and Paul Chek, more and more trainers are talking function. But one of the foundational principles of functional training is relevance. That is, we now know that the body performs best when our training is shaped to conditions that actually exist on the ground (or in the sky). In contrast, it makes almost no sense to prepare people for conditions that they will only encounter in occasional, specialized circumstances.

The message here should be obvious. Instead of training our clients and students for a utopian sporting world that will disappear after graduation, we really should be training one another for success in the real challenges that we are forced to face in daily living. That includes the physical demands (non-demands) imposed on our bodies by cars, cubicles and aircraft. If all you care about is sporting performance, by all means train for that, but if you have an interest in longevity, sustainability or health beyond the practice field or gym, we have to start taking the big picture into account. After all, what good is it if you can throw a 100 mph fastball, but can’t manage the demands of long-distance air travel or other prolonged inactivity? What good are we as trainers if our clients and students don’t have a strategy for staying healthy in a body-hostile world?

So this is the challenge before us: Stand up for your health and your physical happiness. Start by asking the right questions and creating strategies to save your body from the onslaught of innovation and labor-saving devices. Treat prolonged inactivity as the abnormal circumstance that it is. Listen to the feedback that’s coming from your legs, your muscles, your gut and your nervous system. Get up out of your seat and do squats and lunges in the aisles. Be openly physical. And, if your flight is stranded on the tarmac for more than an hour, make your voice heard!

Don’t take inactivity lying down.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

John Sifferman December 24, 2010 at 7:19 am

We should have listened to our muscles when they told us we’ve been sitting down too long. Instead, we need a back injury to wake us up to the problem. We should have paid attention to our eye strain while watching TV or using a computer for too long. Now, we need a full migraine headache.

Sadly, I can take a lot more inactivity than I’d like, but I’m committed to doing something about that each and every day. You’re right, Frank. We need to start paying attention to those subtle signals that vie for our attention, and then we need to take deliberate action on those impulses. Every time we don’t, we cease to be true to our nature, and submit to dying a little sooner – both in spirit and in health.

As for me, I won’t give in – life is too precious.

Josh December 24, 2010 at 10:09 am

Great thoughts Frank!

Some suggestions for folks out there:
* If you’re seated for long periods (on a plane or at work or home), set a timer for 50 minutes and get up and do something physical for 10 minutes of every hour.
* Have a “morning movement ritual” other than going to the bathroom. It can be as short as 10 minutes, but make it count! One suggestion might be 5 minutes of continuous burpees. Try to beat the day before!
* Sprint as often as possible.
* Learn bodyweight exercises (BWE’s). Charlie Reid has started a new blog called “minimalist fitness” dealing with BWE’s. If done with intention, BWE’s not only increase total-body strength, power, endurance, and stamina, but also lead to a deeper “connection” with what the body is saying.
* Do this stuff with someone else, maybe someone you care about!

I think if we can get in the habit of taking individual action, for ourselves, then get our closest communities involved, things will start to shift!

ian January 9, 2011 at 7:31 pm

what about injury? i love to train, i train 6 days a week, but am injured right now, and my leg is not available, i need to rest, but i am going stir crazy, what the heck can be done in this situation, where to heal, you must lay around, and be inactive,

Anna Floyd January 13, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Great post! My mom has always wished for stationary bikes on planes (since that might take up the space of two seats, who knows if it would ever happen – but wouldn’t it be a great idea?).

Your post made me think of the extreme cases of inactivity, specifically quadriplegics who notoriously suffer from heart disease, osteoporosis fractures and respiratory diseases at greater rates than the rest of the population. (Diseases incidentally also higher among the sedentary). Are you familiar with “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”? We seem to live our modern lives much more like those with locked-in syndrome than not.

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