By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
Sitting disease — sounds awful. Is it bedsore? Or possibly some kind of rash? Actually, “sitting disease” is a term used by the scientific community to describe individuals who engage in prolonged periods of sitting (more than 8 hours/day cumulatively) or overall physical inactivity. As you can imagine, a huge problem during the pandemic.
Would you believe that a recent Harvard study shows that sitting may be more harmful to your health than smoking!!! While sitting all day may seem harmless, sitting for hours on end is now associated with 34 chronic diseases or conditions, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, and certain cancers (breast and colon).
You say, “How can something as safe as sitting at home cause so many problems?” According to the scientists, the human body is designed for activity. When muscles are inactive, they don’t take up glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream as efficiently. Sitting for too long can pool blood in your legs, increasing pain. They could swell, twist, or bulge, developing varicose veins.
Even if you are reasonably active, hours of sitting, e.g., on the computer or watching television, tightens the hip flexor and hamstring muscles and stiffen the joints. This may contribute to lower-back pain and knee stiffness. Overly tight hip flexors and hamstrings affect gait and balance, making activities like walking more difficult and perhaps even setting you up for a fall.
So, at your next medical exam, don’t be surprised if your doctor hands you a prescription to walk. More than 2,400 years ago, Hippocrates said, “Walking is a man’s best medicine.” Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said walking is “the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.” Walking can have a bigger impact on various health conditions than just about any other remedy that’s readily available to you.
So, if you’ve been sitting around too much during the pandemic, put on your shoes, step out the door, and rediscover the joys of walking. But first, it may be wise to talk to a doctor first, especially if you haven’t been active recently. Definitely speak to a doctor if you have any injuries or a chronic or unstable health condition — for example heart disease, asthma, high blood pressure, or diabetes.
Since I am not a doctor, nor a physical therapist, the following are some tips on walking from Harvard Medical School, a Special Health Report entitled “Walking for Health”:
Even if you don’t break a sweat while walking, your body is benefitting. Many people erroneously think that they have to be sweating or huffing and puffing for an activity to count as a workout. Not so. Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley found that when walkers and runners burned an equal number of calories from their workouts; they received similar health benefits over six years.
If you’re a bit unsteady on your feet, assistive devices such as poles, canes, and walkers may help you steady your balance and/or alleviate pain or so you can walk more. While you might feel uncomfortable or embarrassed using them, the alternative — walking less — will only make your condition worse, leading to more health problems and pain due to inactivity.
Rolling walkers are especially helpful to get seniors walking without the risk of falling. The traditional walkers you see seniors using by slouching down puts painful pressure on the wrists and back. However, they now make an upright walker that is designed to support the senior in a secure upright position, giving you better posture, so you have more confidence and less pain.
The beauty of walking is that you can do it practically anywhere. Where you walk is a matter of personal preference and safety. Some people enjoy the fresh air and scenery of outdoor walking, e.g., at the beach. Others prefer the climate control and safety of walking indoors at a mall or at home on a treadmill. You’ll be more likely to stick with a walking routine if you walk in an environment that is pleasant and convenient.
Whatever your preference, don’t get stuck in the rut of always walking in the same location. A change of venue can prevent boredom and make your walks more interesting. No matter what your preference is, the most important thing is that you walk consistently. Three popular walking locations are the outdoors, the neighborhood, and open-air shopping.
Studies show that walking outside enhances the mood-boosting effect of a walk, lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and motivates people to walk more. Wind resistance and varied terrain (unpaved roads, rocky trails, slopes that go uphill and down) also challenge your body in new ways to enhance benefits and boost calorie burn. In most communities, there are lots of outdoor options.
Neighborhood — Just step out your front door. You can’t beat that for convenience. Unfortunately, not all neighborhoods are walker-friendly. You’ll be safest walking on sidewalks. If you live in an area without sidewalks, you should walk there only if there is little traffic and a decent shoulder along the road. If it’s not safe to walk near your home, consider walking in a safer neighborhood or other locations that you frequent.
Open-air shopping complexes — These areas usually offer sidewalks and crosswalks, and they are usually cleared if there’s snow or ice. They also offer the shelter and the distraction of shops and restaurants. Some open-air malls even pipe in music. During store hours, leisurely strolling is best for these areas; however, before or after hours, when crowds thin, you can pick up the speed for a heart-pounding workout without having to weave in between people.
If it’s been a while, please be careful. There’s more to walking than simply putting one foot in front of the other. Although you’ve been walking since you were just a baby, there are specific techniques that can help you avoid injuries, make walking more enjoyable, and increase the health benefits of walking. In fact, a little technique goes a long way to making your walks more enjoyable and more effective:
(1) Stand tall. Many people bring that hunched-over-the-computer posture to their walks. Leaning forward or hunching over makes it more difficult to breathe and can cause backaches. To avoid this problem, extend your spine as if you were being lifted from the crown of your head. Place your thumbs on your lower ribs and your fingertips on your hips. As you stand tall, notice how the distance between your fingers increases.
(2) Look up. If you’re looking down at your feet, you’re putting unnecessary stress on your upper back and neck. Bring your gaze out about 10 to 20 feet in front of you. You’ll still be able to spy obstacles ahead and prevent upper-body tension.
(3) Shoulders back, down, and relaxed. Roll your shoulders up, back, and then down. This is where your shoulders should be as you walk — not pulled up toward your ears. Think about keeping your shoulders away from your ears to reduce upper-body tension and allow for a freer arm swing. Swing your arms swing freely from your shoulders, not your elbows. Swing your arms forward and back, like a pendulum. Don’t bring them across your body or let them go higher than your chest.
(4) Maintain a neutral spine. A neutral spine takes into account the slight natural curves of the spine — it’s not flexed or arched to overemphasize the curve of the lower back. One way to find neutral is to tip your pelvis forward as far as is comfortable (lifting your tailbone up), then tip it backward (tucking your tailbone under) as far as is comfortable. The spot approximately in the middle should be neutral.
(5) Step lightly. You should be rolling from heel to toe as you stride, not landing flat-footed with a thud. And don’t reach your leg far out in front of you. That increases impact on your joints and actually slows you down. You want a smooth, quiet stride — no bouncing or plodding along — to reduce your risk of injury.
In conclusion, walking can be done just about anywhere. Numerous studies has shown walking helps reduce the risk of diabetes and cancer, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and keep you mentally sharp. What’s more, it’s free, there’s no equipment required, and has practically no negative side effects (perhaps a blister if your shoes don’t fit).
Walking can even help your mood. A number of studies have found that it’s as effective as drugs for decreasing depression, as mood-elevating endorphin levels increase. A 2018 UCLA study found “sitting disease” may also be bad for your brain, e.g., depression, memory problems.
And many people find that walking helps clear the mind — you may even find the solution to a problem that’s been bugging you.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.