Stand Up! The Health Police Are Watching

Every now and then there’s a new flurry of news articles about how sitting will kill you. As seems to be routine with science reporting, these articles usually do not actually cite the study they’re using as the basis for their claims, let alone link to it for convenience. ‘Researchers say…’ ‘a new study indicates…’ ‘scientists have long warned…’ All of these tactics force readers to go on a treasure hunt to find the actual study, and many readers are disinclined to do this or don’t have the tools they need to hunt effectively. They might not have access to medical journals, for example, or don’t know the right keywords they need to search for anything in the public domain.

This immediately puts readers at a disadvantage, because they have to take the claims made in the article at face value, which is usually not a good idea with pretty much any journalism, but particularly journalism relying on science, as journalists tend to assume that readers can’t handle science. And since ‘health’ journalism often takes a scaremongering tack, it means that a study can quickly be distorted to say something it really didn’t conclude and readers have no way of knowing that the stated information is radically incorrect. After all, ‘limited research suggests the need for more study on this topic’ isn’t nearly as exciting or eye-grabbing as ‘a routine activity may kill you!’ and writing good headlines is the way you sell papers.

Dramatic headlines are the case with pretty much every ‘sitting will kill you’ article. Most actually use that exact phrasing in the headline, unless you’re reading a high class media outlet, in which case they will throw around words like ‘lethal’ instead. The lede is usually equally dramatic to make sure readers are drawn in, almost despite themselves.

Allegedly, sitting for long periods of time is supposed to do all sorts of horrible things to your body, even if you exercise regularly. Sitting, almost every article makes a point of informing readers, makes you fat. It makes you ‘weak.’ And will eventually lead to a horrible death[1. I’ve also heard that most people who breathe eventually die, although I think they’re still researching that.]. Many of these articles go on to condemn ‘the chair based lifestyle’ and smug journalists and bloggers respond to them with trend pieces on their treadmill desks or how they use exercise balls instead of chairs, etc etc.

It’s interesting to see the point about fat raised, because fat folks are often accused of lying on self reporting about diet and exercise habits. It would be impossible, they are told, for anyone reporting that level of activity and those dietary choices to be that fat[2. There’s a whole separate issue tied in here with the social pressure to be a ‘good fatty,’ a model of good health, but I don’t want to get into that right now.]. Yet, here we’re reading articles claiming that even if people exercise regularly, if they sit a lot, they will still get fat[3. ETA: This is not to reinforce the popular myth that fat people spend all their time sitting around eating bonbons, though, as always, the activity levels of others are not our business anyhow, but rather to point out that in a society where many people work in offices, the reality is that many of us are going to be sitting eight hours a day or more, five days a week, regardless as to what we do in our non-work hours.]. Gosh, it’s almost like fat is more complicated than calories in, calories out, isn’t it.

These articles usually include a whole slew of frightening language throwing around percentages and big medical words to reinforce for readers that sitting is dangerous. In fact, if they are sitting right now, they should stop immediately, lest all their muscles atrophy and melt away, ending up in a puddle on the floor under their chairs (43% of study subjects). There’s usually a brief nod to evolutionary biology, featuring some official-sounding scientist who opines on how human bodies are not really designed for sitting and working in offices, and thus, these findings make complete sense.

It seems to take around six to eight months for a new round of these articles to roll around, like clockwork. And it’s interesting to note that most focus on ablebodied people and their sitting and exercise habits. They don’t look at a population of people that actually knows rather a lot about sitting a lot of time; people with mobility impairments that necessitate wheelchair or scooter use, sometimes full time. These are not individuals who can easily get up periodically to save themselves from the perils of sitting in a chair for long periods of time; they can’t follow the helpful tips in these articles like using standing workstations or getting up every hour to stretch and flex the legs.

I guess they figure people with mobility impairments are already doomed so they don’t need specific interventions?

What’s interesting about these articles is how they end up being used as yet another form of health policing. The wave of reminders that some study somewhere said that parking your butt on a chair for long periods is bad for you is always, always followed by a bunch of reports on standing workstations and treadmill/stationary cycle desks and other such things. The media flocks to interview people with ‘unconventional workstations’ so they can talk about how terrific and healthy and wonderful their workplaces are, with a sly note to readers, viewers, and listeners that they aren’t trying hard enough to protect their health, and they should really be ashamed of themselves. They’re probably sitting down right now.

Shaming behaviours around health are certainly nothing new. It seems to be a bit of a contact sport for much of the population, and a lot of it is based on incomplete and cherrypicked information, just like these articles. You’re bad if you do this, you’re bad if you don’t do this, if you really cared about your body you would do this, you have an obligation to be healthy, gosh, why can’t you keep up with the latest scientific information?!