Staying Alive

By Simon Gear

Last week, I read the most disturbing article, published in theBritish Medical Journal. The likelihood of heart attacks, the BMJ warned, has little to do with how regularly you get out for your morning run, and far more to do with how sedentary your day is. If you are like all the runners I know, your exercise is a single block that you slot into your busy day. You’re either running or sitting, with very little grey area in between.

So if you wanted a human for a pet, how would you keep him? What are the optimal conditions that Homo sapiensenjoy to keep them bright-eyed, lean and happy? What, in short, do humans do naturally? When we left the forests we left behind the branch of apes that went on to found the chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutangs. As the rest of the great apes rested in the thick jungle, we stretched up onto two legs and strode purposefully out into the savannah. And we’ve been the very best at walking long distances ever since.

The closest current example to the way in which our forefathers must have lived has to be the savannah baboons – troops of 30 to 50 individuals that kip in the same place each night but spend their days wandering slowly over the landscape, tasting whatever food they come across as they go.

I’m pretty sure that it would be illegal to keep humans in the conditions that we keep ourselves. The idea that any animal (other than us) would limit its daily activity to one 30 minute burst, followed by 10 hours sitting motionless in front of a succession of screens seems absurd, and yet that is the life we’ve chosen for ourselves. I’m pretty sure that keeping an ancient human in the manner in which we live today would be considered unspeakably cruel.

Ape

And despite how advanced our brains are, they still reside in the body of a free-roaming great ape. That is why the BMJ’s findings make so much sense. Sure, a brisk morning walk or a circuit at the gym is good for you, but the damage that you do sitting down could probably negate the steps forward you are making. I bet this is also at the root of the rise of modern obesity.

Even our hardest-working grandfathers weren’t chained to their desks throughout the day. Without email and the internet, a busy clerk was forced to get up and trot off to the bank or a meeting or the canteen a few times a day. And up until the World War 2, everyone but the biggest of big bosses still took public transport, with all of the walking and standing that that entails. So is there any surprise that (even among us athletes) we experience higher rates of ‘lifestyle diseases’ than a generation ago?

The good news is we can recapture this, with only minimal education of our bosses. There was a time when the concept of the smoke break still ruled the roost of the office day. It was completely socially acceptable to jump up from your desk once an hour, wander out into the car park, stand around for five minutes and then wander back. As a non-smoker, I refused to let this be a privilege of the smelly few and so was more than happy to take smoke breaks along with the puffers. An unintended consequence of our war on smoking has been to kill off the only opportunity people had to break up their work day.

It’s time to win it back, I say. Set your watch to beep once an hour. Get up, nod politely to the busy beavers on either side of you in the cubicle farm, and walk briskly and purposefully out into the car park. A quick march to the nearest tree and back, a pause for a mouthful of water (something else we don’t do nearly enough) and back to the desk. And if your boss tells you to stop, just shake your head, ‘Uh uh uh. I’m staying alive’.

“Staying Alive” appeared in the October 2011 issue of Runner’s World. 

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