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Death By Desk

Every epoch in human history has had its deadly diseases. Primitive man dealt with death by slumpedcontaminated foods and water, the Middle Ages had its Black Death, the early Modern Period had its water borne diseases, and the 20th century was marked by heart disease and cancers. The 21st century is now here and many disease control experts are predicting that this century will be characterized by deaths related to our lifestyles. Sedentary living, and the rise of technology are creating numerous first world problems. One of the more insidious is being referred to by many experts as “Death by Desk.” Twenty first century living has combined the fantasies of George Jetson with George Orwell, and many of us are beginning to pay the price.Death by Desk may initially seem to be hyperbole. On closer look maybe it’s not. Consider some of the following statistics:

– Over 80% of Americans are employed in jobs that require little to no physical activity, resulting in unprecedented levels of stress and heart disease.Almost half of all Americans do not get the minimum amount of exercise required for health.
– Americans burn 140 fewer calories per day than they did 50 years ago, resulting in an average weight gain of 14.6 pounds per year.
– In the 1960s nearly half of all jobs required physical activity. In 2012 less than 20% do.
– Currently one in three Americans is obese. That’s obese, not merely overweight.
– People with sedentary jobs are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease than those that have active jobs.
– The average office keyboard has five times the amount of germs found in a public bathroom.
– Three out of four American workers say that their work is stressful, and one in four identify it as the most stressful thing in their lives.
– Each day over 1 million American workers call in sick due to stress related maladies.

Statistics would indicate that the future we envisioned in the 20th century is more Orwellian than Jetsonian. Experts have identified the sedentary lifestyle, and the automated workplace as the next generation’s health epidemic. Death by Desk appears to be a real phenomenon. In addition to the statistics cited above, there are immediate orthopedic issues stemming from this lifestyle. Neck, shoulder, thoracic and lumbar spine problems occur within a few hours. The results of structural problems that result from being hunched over a keyboard, iPhone, or video game are just the beginning. There is a direct relation between postural deficiencies and mental health. This is the hidden epidemic caused by Death by Desk that underlie the above statistics.

Amy Cuddy, a Harvard University psychologist and expert in human body language, has identified various postural positions as indicative of happiness or sadness. There are universal postures that people of all cultures fall into while experiencing extreme emotional states. Consider the example of the Wimbledon tennis tournament. The winner virtually always thrusts hands in the air simultaneously, expands their chest, pulls their chin back, and experiences pure joy. The losers will roll their shoulders forward internally, their chin drops onto their chest, their upper back and lower back fold in, and they experience feelings of defeat and dejection. The losers position is very similar to a person who is hunched over a keyboard, iPhone, or desk. Cuddy’s research shows that there is a direct relationship between our physiological state and our posture to our emotional and mental state. In other words, the positions we place our body in effect our emotional well-being. An insidious side effect of slow Death by Desk is the immediate impact that it has on our outlook and mental health.The way that we stand, sit, and move has a direct correlation with subjective feelings such as depression, anxiety, and feeling stressed out.

There is, however, good news. Death by Desk is imminently treatable and preventable. And the antidote may even be fun. A simple Google search would yield hundreds of methods that would improve and prevent this condition. The first step in combating this condition is an understanding of how we were meant to stand and sit. The second step is embarking on a program of corrective exercise to fight the effects of technology on our posture.

Esther Gokhale has made a study of human posture and how we were originally meant to stand. We are, after all, sophisticated primates. The following TED talks lecture briefly explains her ideas:

Kelly Starrett is a doctor of physical therapy and owner of CrossFit San Francisco. He is one of the countries leading experts on mobility, corrective exercise, and structural improvement. His YouTube channel is chock-full of incredible free advice on ways that posture and movement can be improved and Death by Desk may be prevented:

Human beings were meant to be athletes. For most of the 21st century athletics has become something that we watch on TV with a bag of Doritos and a beverage that is not good for us. No one’s advocating quitting your job and turning your life into an episode of Man versus Wild, but there are things you can do to prevent Death by Desk. Some of them may even be fun. A regular regimen of exercise supplemented with the mobility work that Kelly Starrett suggests may do the trick.

Remember, human beings are programmed for movement and are meant to be athletes. Find ways in your life to become more athletic. After all, life is a contact sport.


P. S. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org with questions or comments.


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