Being busy is really, really bad for your health
Tim Kreider’s opinion piece for The New York Times made the top of my must-read list this week. Kreider, a writer who lives an idyllic existence in small town America, where checking his emails means a drive into the town library, says the rest of us all too busy for our own good.
Well, that part we know. Normal lives are chaotic, non-stop and full to the brim. Just try organising a social event with more than two other people sometime.
More interesting was Kreider’s sub-point, the bit where he said we only have ourselves to blame for being too busy. And that our seemingly endless list of social, work, health or family commitments are created by us on purpose, to make up for our largely intangible day jobs.
He wrote: “More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”
This is a terrific point. Compare today’s workforce with that of our ancestors, who spent most of their time out in the paddocks, tilling the land. According to the results of the 2011 census only 177, 000 Australians work in labor or operating heavy machinery. Bottom line: most of us are earning a living by sitting on our bums all day and spending most of our spare time living in suburbs or city areas.
Why we do this of course, is not a surprise. Progress, innovation, jobs, opportunity and education have driven most of us to the city areas we inhabit and the jobs we have chosen. The real problem here is what these patterns are doing to our experience of life and most importantly our health.
As Kreider points out our “busyness” is an attempt to fill a big gaping whole in our mental and spiritual health, but these “intangible” jobs are wreaking havoc on our bodies too.
Everything you need to know about why this is happening can be found in this fantastic piece written by Maria Masters for Men Health magazine. It’s a long read that includes references to several terrifying studies linking modern workplace lethargy with an appalling health crisis
Two stand out to me. The first, an experiment by Dutch researchers who created a historical theme park and recruited actors to live like Australian settlers in 1850; chopping wood and foraging for food and compared their energy expenditure with modern office workers. At the end of a normal day, Aussie settlers walked the equivalent of eight extra kilometres every day.
The second study, conducted in 2010 by Pennington Biomedical Centre in Louisiana, found our desk jobs are slowly but surely killing us; and worst of all, it doesn’t matter how much exercise you do or how lean you are. Why? Because sitting down all day increases a person’s insulin sensitivity, that’s the main trigger for diabetes. Plus, prolonged periods of sitting have also been found to significantly increase the gene that causes heart disease - both facts that explain why even though we’re living longer, we’re not living healthier.
Overwhelming isn’t it? Kind of makes me want to install a podium for my computer so I can stand up at work all day. That, or become a farmer. Yet it seems to me that all of this terrifying information about our health could actually offer a solution to all that emptiness that Kreider said is keeping us so busy.
What if we swapped all those activities we’re packing our lives with, that actually inhibit us from being available to the people we loved and just moved a lot more.
It’s easy to day dream when you’re out for a stroll. And getting up from your desk and walking around the room to break your concentration does wonders for your problem solving ability.
With all that time saved from racing around from one thing to another, we’d probably have more meaningful conversations, better memories and a top notch resting heart rate from all that incidental cardio. Heck, we’d also probably be so tired that we’d even sleep better.
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