Is Your Chair Killing You? Review of Get Up! by Dr. James Levine

Wearing his trademark athletic shoes and a sober business suit, I’ve always thought of Dr. James Levine, brilliant, erstwhile Englishman, as the Mayo Clinic’s own regeneration of Dr. Who.

So when I read that this spry obesity expert characterized himself as an overweight child and fidgety, “mediocre” student, I confess to being shocked.

I was among the lucky few who got a pre-release copy of Levine’s newest book, “Get Up”. It’s the kind of read you will go back to again and again.

Further revelations about his early years include the fact that at the age of 11 “Fluffy”, as his classmates called him, was obsessed with the nocturnal activities of two pet snails and was a source of unrelenting frustration for at least one of his teachers. Life is fickle, but in Levine’s case, devotion to those snails − Joanne and Maurice to be precise − paid off nicely by setting him on a scholarly path which led to a medical degree specializing in Endocrinology and a PhD in Electrical Engineering.

While he shed the image of chubby school boy, Levine never outgrew his interest in movement. His insights into Non-exercise Thermogenesis Activity (NEAT)¹ NEAT has caused a revolution in the way we think about physical activity in general and sitting in particular, and he is the founding force behind the Obesity Solutions² program at the University of Arizona.

“Validated and sustainable school solutions exist for reversing lethal sitting in children. Insist on change.”

Levine holds nothing back in connecting obesity to sedentary behavior. According to him, “The goal of sitting is to give our bodies a break from standing, which is the way human anatomy and physiology is designed.”

Mind you, he points out early in his book that “There is nothing innately harmful about a chair unless you sit on it too much.” It’s just that in these modern times, “we sit for 13 hours a day, sleep for 8 and move for 3. Living all day on our bottoms wrecks our health.” Indeed, we have become painfully aware of what sedentary behavior is doing to our bodies, and the number of “captive” knowledge workers continues to rise: “The number of sedentary jobs has increase 83% since 1950.”

The first time I met Dr. Levine was about five years ago at Ergotron’s headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota. He had come to demonstrate a digital device that he had developed to help people track their activity levels. At that time, Ergotron’s standing student desk, LearnFit™, was in the early stages of development and I was interested in knowing if the Mayo was involved in any research on sedentary behavior among children.

From that first conversation evolved a collaborative relationship between Levine and Ergotron that continues to this day. After conducting a pilot study with children at the Nay Ah Shing elementary school in Onamia, Minnesota, Levine’s co-investigators are poised to begin a study using Ergotron mobile standing LearnFit desks in classrooms located in Florida and Arizona.

As Levine notes in the book, “Today a third of US youth are overweight or have obesity; that’s 23 million kids. Since 1980, obesity rates in children have tripled. Children are now developing adult diseases while in school: diabetes, fatty liver disease, hypertension and even cardiovascular disease…a teenager with obesity has an 80 percent chance of carrying the excess weight into adulthood.”

Increasingly, childhood development experts all over the world are acknowledging that traditional static classroom desks actually inhibit learning. So maybe it was to be expected that after spending the last 25 years in his non-exercise activity (NEAT) laboratory operating an anti-chair movement, and investigating “the harms sitting does to both body and mind.” Levine would get a call from the White House with a question: “If sitting is so bad for workers and NEAT active work has so many benefits for employee health and productivity, surely this must be the case for children.”

Anyone who knows Dr. Levine, or has read his former book, “Move A Little, Lose A Lot” can guess what happened next.

He got busy soliciting the opinions of a hundred educators about the possibility of an active classroom. He reports, “It was clear that teachers were passionately seeking health solutions for their students.” But with funding shortfalls and state and federal test reporting making high demands on their time, there were no resources, time or know-how as to how to decrease chair time and encourage NEAT in the classroom.

Still, Levine recognized that another crucial perspective was needed; what would students themselves say about how a classroom should function? He sought out the answer and ultimately, the vision of a school-of-the-future designed for and by students with input from their instructors came true in Rochester, Minnesota, thanks in part to Levine’s knowledge and leadership.

From his early years tracking the progress of snails sliding across aquarium glass Dr. Levine has applied intellectual curiosity and boundless energy to the study of physical activity. He continues to “walk the talk” with community engagement activities, scientific investigations and strategic alliances that link thought-leaders from around the world. His work with NEAT has been a source of inspiration to us at Ergotron in the fight against sitting disease and I recommend his new book, Get Up! to everyone who is concerned about the quality of their lives along with the quantity of good years they have to come!

Dr. Levine was recently featured in ErgoExpo’s August Wednesday Webinar.  Visit here for the On-Demand session of the “Get Up – Your Life Might Be Depending On It” event.

¹ Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise.

² Based on a comprehensive partnership between Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University, ObesitySolutions is a global effort to build, test and share ideas that work for real people in the real world.