The News Story – “Sitting For Too Long Can Kill You”.
According to the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network (2012), sedentary behaviour is defined as “any waking activity characterized by an energy expenditure of less than or equal to 1.5 metabolic equivalents and a sitting or reclined position”; in layman’s terms, it is to sit relatively still for a while. In today’s society, sedentary behaviour goes unchallenged and sitting down is culturally conditioned to be associated with commuting, working, and even relaxing! Currently, research is accumulating and the evidence is nearly irrefutable now that sitting leads to a whole host of negative health outcomes (Biswas et al, 2015). Drawing from recently published research, an article from the CBC outlined several of these sitting-related health problems and briefly described a few actions that counteract the chronic sitting. Heart disease, diabetes, and back pain were just some of the risks listed in the article; short bouts of standing or walking were suggested to balance out periods of inactivity. Finally, it was mentioned in the article that a “cultural overhaul” is needed in terms of the way in which society normalizes long bouts of sitting still (Ubelacker, 2015).
How Can Symbolic Interactionism Be Applied to This News Story?
According to Germov and Hornosty (2012), “humans create reality through their actions and the meanings they give to them… therefore, society is the cumulative effect of human action, interaction, and interpretation.” Currently, the reality that we live in is one in which much of the population suffers from the same chronic diseases listed in the aforementioned article; heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and many musculoskeletal problems run rampant in today’s society. Unfortunately, the actions (or lack thereof) of regular sedentary people only serve to increase the prevalence of chronic illness. In today’s society, sitting is associated with being at work, learning at school, and unwinding during leisure time (e.g. while playing video games, reading, or watching a movie). All of our interpersonal interactions occur in this crescent-shaped-back, knees-and-hips-bent-at-a-right-angle position. And through repetition, where these actions go unquestioned by the masses, chair-sitting sedentary behaviour has been interpreted as a necessity – the only way to go about doing most activities of daily living. The reality that we have collectively created is one in which a normalized, unquestioned, but terribly unhealthy habit has resulted in a population of sick and physically broken people. To reverse this alarming trend, a shift in thinking must occur whereby sitting in chairs for long periods of time is no longer culturally conditioned as a normal part of everyday life.
If Sitting is So Bad, How Come We Keep Doing It?
From an evolutionary perspective, one might think that actions and behaviours that serve to make us ill and die early will, as a natural instinct to further the human race, not be repeated. However, this is clearly not the case as society continues to perpetuate a culture of sitting. The concept of social construction can explain this odd paradox. Norms, patterns, and other social phenomena are actively constructed through our repeated actions; thus, we are able to mould realities that are not “natural” (i.e. make sense in terms of evolution or biology) (Germov & Hornosty, 2012). This concept of social construction fits perfectly into the broader theory of symbolic interactionism. Herbert Blumer was a sociologist who was famous for his work on symbolic interactionism. In congruence with the concept of social construction, he asserted that humans tend to act on the basis of meaning (rather than reality), and that these actions are likely to be repeated as long as people keep interacting amongst themselves in the same manner (Blumer, 1969).
The social construct in question right now is the norm of having to sit in a chair while doing anything. The act of being seated all day, every day, goes against the natural human instinct to get up and move around. As an example, take the case of Sammy Sedentary. At some point during his work day, he will feel the urge to move due to his stiff back and sluggish metabolism. Interoceptors throughout his body will scream out via his nervous system, telling poor old Sammy to move. But no, he will not oblige. He will stay seated like a good office worker. Through years and years of cultural conditioning, starting from his youngest years in kindergarten where being seated in a chair was associated with the process of learning and working, Sammy came to wrongfully accept that sitting is the only way people can work and be productive. All around him, his peers were conditioned to believe the same thing, and doing things in different shapes or poses like standing up or squatting down was considered deviant and led to diagnoses of attention deficit disorder or mania. Thus, the social construct of being seated throughout the majority of the day came to be cemented as a normal and unquestioned part of Sammy’s adult life. These days, Sammy is suffering from some of the same illnesses as those listed in the CBC article. He carries insulin around with him because of his diabetes, his doctor tells him he should watch what he eats because of his high cholesterol, and his knees and low back are in constant pain. Furthermore, due to his poor health, he has adopted a rather serious and unhumorous disposition; he no longer goes by Sammy and insists that his coworkers address him by his birth name – Samuel.
Current Research and the Future of Sitting Culture.
A recent meta-analysis done by Biswas et al. (2015) underscored the fact that as a society, we sit around too much. The study concluded that sedentary behaviour is associated with negative health outcomes, regardless of physical activity. In lieu of these findings, it can be said with certainty that the concept of sitting for long periods of time is a maladaptive social norm. A norm that many people – even those who are health-conscious daily exercisers – are unaware of! As previously mentioned, a cultural shift must occur where sitting is no longer associated with periods of work, rest, and leisure. For most people, more time needs to be spent in ergonomically-friendly and metabolically-taxing positions. Fortunately, it seems as though this paradigm shift has already started to occur, as more and more offices are switching over from traditional sit-down work spaces to stand-up desks. The efficacy of these stand-up desk programs have been put to the test (Gilson et al, 2012), but regardless of their effectiveness, it is
great to see that awareness around sedentary behaviour is growing and that the status quo of sitting is no longer going unquestioned by society.
A recent study done by Gilson et al. (2012), examined the effectiveness of an office stand-up desk program. For two weeks, researchers monitored how much and how often workers chose to use standing desks as opposed to regular sitting desks. Unfortunately, results showed that over the two weeks, barely anyone switched over to the healthier alternative. These findings are a grave reminder that humans tend to act on the basis of meaning rather than instinct (Blumer, 1969). Collectively, society must bring new meaning to the idea of sedentary behaviour. Each individual must turn away from the status quo and create a new norm. Eventually, through the aggregation of our new actions and interactions, we can create a new culture that moves away from sedentary behaviour and its related health consequences.
Biswas, A., Oh, P. I., Faulkner, G. E., Bajaj, R. R., Silver, M. A., Mitchell, M. S., & Alter, D. A. (2015). Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in AdultsA Systematic Review and Meta-analysisSedentary Time and Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization. Annals of Internal Medicine, 162(2), 123–132. http://doi.org/10.7326/M14-1651 Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Prentice-Hall. Germov, John., & Hornosty, J. (2012). Second opinion: An introduction to health sociology. Don Mills: Oxford University Press. Gilson, N. D., Suppini, A., Ryde, G. C., Brown, H. E., & Brown, W. J. (2012). Does the use of standing “hot” desks change sedentary work time in an open plan office? Preventive Medicine, 54(1), 65–7. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2011.10.012
Sedentary Behaviour Research Network. 2012. Standardized use of the terms “sedentary” and “sedentary behaviours”. Applied physiology, nutrition and metabolism. 37: 540-542 Ubelacker, S. (2015, Jan 19). Sitting for too long can kill you, even if you exercise: study. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/sitting-for-too-long-can-kill-you-