Sitting Is the New Smoking and Mindfulness Is the New Black

Research tells us to keep moving... and to be still.

Posted Jul 19, 2016

Photo © Peter Hirshberg - used with permission
Source: Photo © Peter Hirshberg - used with permission

Look within. Be still. 
Free from fear and attachment
Know the sweet joy of living in the way.
The Dhammapada, Words of the Buddha 

I like to move it, move it 
She likes to move it, move it 
He likes to move it, move it 
You like to move it!

Reel 2 Real & The Mad Stuntman

You don’t smoke, you don’t do drugs, you drink only in moderation, you eat a healthy diet and you get exercise. You’re doing everything right. Right?

Exercise physiologist Pete Holman, a featured speaker at the 2016 Aspen Brain Lab, and creator of the TRX suspension trainer portable home gym, says not quite. It turns out that we have to get in motion all day long. Regularly sitting for long periods is associated with an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. In fact, sitting for 8 or more hours per day increases your risk of type II Diabetes by 90%. According to the World Health Organization, “physical inactivity has been identified as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths globally.”

But you get plenty of exercise. You go to the gym. You even take the stairs instead of the elevator. Isn't that enough? Apparently it's not. Prolonged inactivity appears to be independently associated with illness and mortality even for people who exercise. This is why exercise trackers prompt us to move every hour. And getting in motion makes us happier, too, so put down the kale smoothie, throw on your Lulus, and move it, move it...

You can take a cue from our cousins, the great apes. Chilean primatologist and Aspen Brain Lab speaker, Dr. Isabel Behncke, discovered that Bonobos in the jungles of the Congo use play to establish trust, create positive emotion, and experience social joy. Behncke believes that humans also use play to build relationships and foster tolerance. Play increases creativity, resilience, and even social connections, because when people play together, they develop positive feelings for each other.

Source: Photo © Peter Hirshberg - used with permission

Observing Bonobos at play reminds Behncke of human festivals like Burning Man, a unique festival in the desert of Nevada that has been described as “art festival crossed with a dance-and-costume party in a giant utopian village. It's like a free-for-all of self-expression.” 

Festivals are “crucial to bonding groups, to extending networks, to creating trust, to developing creativity and also, just the sheer joy,” Behncke claims. At Burning Man, “people immediately connect to each other, laugh, are willing to make fun of themselves, engage with people that they didn't know before,” she says.

Burning Man is also a very unique, other-oriented community. Participants adhere to a set of principles that include cooperation, gifting, inclusion, and other values that promote kindness and generosity. According to renowned sociologist/physician Nicholas Christakis, co-author of the book, Connected, everything we do or say has a ripple effect, and social networks magnify whatever they are seeded with. Burning Man is seeded with playfulness, trustworthy behaviors, and acts of kindness. In other words, Burning Man is a community of playful givers. 

Source: Photo © Peter Hirshberg - used with permission

Every type of giving whether organized or informal - giving to a homeless person, giving to charity, giving blood, even giving directions to lost motorists - is associated with increased health, happiness and life satisfaction.[i],[ii],[iii] Giving also elevates levels of natural opiates known as endorphins. Psychologists call this the “helpers’ high.” What people at Burning Man learn firsthand is that focusing on others makes them happy

Psychologists used to believe that people had a happiness setpoint – that each individual was genetically programmed for a certain level of happiness and would revert to that level regardless of circumstances. Aspen Brain Lab speaker, Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself says that's only partly the case. The brain changes both functionally and structurally in response to thoughts and experiences, so we have more flexibility than we used to think.

iStock Photo © nimon_t
Source: iStock Photo © nimon_t

Neuroscientists now understand what Buddhists have been saying all along. In Richard Davidson's lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has been able to demonstrate that brains are constantly changing—most of the time without our knowledge. He likens the mind to a rudderless sailboat being pushed by the winds on a turbulent ocean.

The good news is we can take more responsibility for our minds by engaging in specific mental strategies that promote well-being, and in the process change the brain in a positive way. In fact, mindfulness has become a popular focus of neuroscience in both explaining neuroplasticity—the ability for the brain to change—and teaching people how to self-regulate, be more focused, and become happier. Once the purview of Yogis and spiritual seekers, mindfulness meditation is now widely considered an essential tool in developing self-control, executive function, and emotion regulation.

But what is mindfulness? Jon Kabat Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Given that about ninety percent of happiness appears to be predicted not by what happens, but by the way your brain interprets what happens, if you change your brain through mindfulness training, you can change your reality. According to Jon Kabat Zinn, “whatever you wind up doing, that’s what you’ve wound up doing. Whatever you are thinking right now, that’s what’s on your mind. . . . The important question is, how are you going to handle it?”

Source: Pamela Paresky

Yet apparently we should handle it without doing too much sitting. Thankfully, seated meditation is only one method of mindfulness training. Another is journaling. Psychologist and author Shawn Achor claims that you can create a shift in how your brain processes by writing down three new things for which you are grateful each day. “In just a two-minute span of time done for 21 days in a row, we can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually work more optimistically and more successfully.” 

Add to that writing down something kind you’ve done for someone else each day, and you can increase your happiness, become kinder, and have even more things for which to be grateful

So what are you waiting for? Start a journal of your kindnesses and get moving... and be still.

For more information like this, the Aspen Brain Lab is held each summer Aspen, Colorado and tickets are available to the public.

Aspen Brain Lab used with permission
Source: Aspen Brain Lab used with permission

[i] Brooks, A. Gross National Happiness. (2008). New York: Basic Books. (Citing Davis, J., Smith, T., Marsden, P. (principal investigators) General Social Surveys. 1972-2004.)

[ii] Kloseck, M; Crilly, R. G.; Mannell, R. (2006). Involving the community elderly in the planning and provision of health services: Predictors of volunteerism and leadership. Canadian Journal on Aging 25 (1) : 77 - 91 (2006) 77

[iii] Borgonovi, F. (2008). Doing well by doing good. The relationship between formal volunteering and self-reported health and happiness. Journal of Social Science and Medicine 66, 2321- 2334.