5 Myths About Exercise, Sitting and Sleep Unpacked

Coach Beverly on Treadmill Desk answering emails and writing presentations.

I started walking while working 7 years ago after reading research on how “sitting was the new smoking”. I purchased my treadmill desk in 2013 and since that time, I have been walking 7 miles a day, through a combination of my treadmill desk and outdoor strolls.

Over the past 7 years, I have accumulated almost 18,000 miles in an attempt to prevent heart disease, cancer, and a myriad of other chronic health problems. But it seems there is more to the story.

Is “sitting the new smoking?”

The Terry Gross interview with Daniel Lieberman, a professor at Harvard in the department of human evolutionary biology, put my beliefs into question. Dr. Lieberman recently penned a book called “Exercised”, which details his research finding and dispels some commonly held myths.

Besides being a super-smart paleoanthropologist and professor, Lieberman has also spent a lot of time with indigenous hunter-gatherers in Africa and Latin America. He has observed and cataloged how much time they spend walking, running, lifting, carrying, and sitting.

Surprising Findings. 5 myths unpacked.

  1. You have to walk 10,000 steps a day to be healthy.

Based on current hunter-gathering behaviors, Dr. Lieberman calculates our ancestors walked about 5 miles a day or 10,000 steps. The average adult in America walks about half of that distance or 5,000 steps a day which equals 2.5 miles. This number might be even lower over the past year, given the pandemic and people working from home.

Even though we walk less than our ancestors, Lieberman is encouraging. He says if 10,000 steps feel out of reach, it’s okay to aim for less, as long as the person focuses on movement and engaging muscles to prevent atrophy. Any movement is better than no movement!

“The more we study physical activity, the more we realize that it doesn’t really matter what you do,” Lieberman says. “You don’t have to do incredible strength training … to get some benefits of physical activity. There’s all different kinds of physical activity, and it’s all good in different ways.”

Daniel lieberman

2. Hunter-gatherers sit a lot less than modern humans.

Not true. Surprisingly, research on hunter-gatherers reveals that they sit for 10 hours a day on average, which is the same amount of times the average American sits.

Humans are designed to conserve energy in case of a lack of adequate nutrition. Most hunter-gatherers Lieberman studied don’t have chairs, but they spent a great deal of time sitting. This lack of chairs is actually associated with better spine and back health (see more below)

3. Sitting is really that bad for us.

Interrupted sitting is a far better approach than nestling your body in a comfy chair for hours at a time.

Time spent sitting at work isn’t the major problem. It’s leisure time sitting for hours at a time that is associated with poor health outcomes like heart disease, cancer, or diabetes.

But regardless of sitting at work or home, just getting up every once in a while, every 10 minutes or so makes a big difference in health outcomes.

Try to intentionally get up frequently to go to the bathroom or pet the dog or make yourself a cup of tea. Even though you’re not spending a lot of energy, you’re turning on your muscles. Since muscles are the largest organ in your body, using them decreases inflammation and burns fat and glucose.

4. You can prevent back pain by getting lumbar support or a fancy chair.

Another myth.

Up until recently, only the upper class had chairs with a seatback. Most human beings usually sat on the ground, stools, or benches. The problem with chairs with backs is that sitting becomes more of a passive activity since you use fewer muscles to stabilize your upper body.

Using chairs with seat backs result in weaker back muscles that begin to atrophy due to disuse.

Chairs with lumbar support and lots of cushioning may encourage sitting for longer periods of time, which may further contribute to muscle loss.

5. Getting 8 hours of sleep a night is essential for well being

Based on Lieberman’s research of people who live in places where there is no electricity and computer screens, they don’t sleep more hours than the average American.

People in regions without electricity sleep on average 6.7 to 7.1 hours a night.

Lieberman says we need to stop sleep shaming.

It is true, that not getting enough sleep (4-5 hours a night) can be detrimental to health. But, if a person is getting 6 or 7 hours of sleep a night and they feel fine, that is what is most important.

Thanks for reading this article by Coach Bev who is typing while walking on her treadmill.

Read the complete article here: Just Move: Scientist Author Debunks Myths About Exercise and Sleep

Please see our Exercise Resource Page for handouts to share


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