Fill Your Day with Little Rewards

Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
September 26, 2017  | Last Updated: September 26, 2017

Adults sit for 9 to 10 hours a day. You already knew that modern life — car, desk job, leisure time on your butt before the TV, laptop, or phone — isn’t good for you. But now we know that even if you follow the standard advice and get in 30 minutes of exercise five days a week, you still need to get up from your chair more often.

The latest study followed nearly 8,000 adults aged 45 or older and clocked how many minutes they sat, when they got up, and when they sat down again.

The bad news: The longer your sitting bouts, the more likely you were to die within the four years the researchers looked at the data. This was true even if you weren’t fat and even if you exercised.


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People who didn’t sit for more than 30 minutes at a time had the lowest risk of death.

So how can you push yourself to take those breaks?

I propose that you consider each time you get up an excuse to do something else that you enjoy. Give yourself rewards. You might also establish a mental point system. If you’ve ever done Weight Watchers you’re a pro.

You’ve been watching TV and hit a commercial — time to go to the kitchen! You might get an apple or glass of water (or donut), but at least you got up. The key: don’t put the food within reach. One point for getting up, another point if your snack is healthy.

You’re at work and bombarded by email. Get up! Procrastinate! Go to a window and stare for a few minutes. Two points, one for moving and one for de-stressing. If you have a tree in your view, three points. Go back to your desk. A half hour passes. Go to the bathroom and do a breathing exercise in the privacy of your stall. Two points.

You’re at work and just realized you’ll have to stay late. Get up! Walk somewhere. Get out your cell and call your child. Two points. Three if she answers the phone. If you end up texting, also look at photos of flowers on Instagram and forward one. You’re a parent who moves, stops to smell virtual roses, and communicates by social media. How much is that worth?

Your phone is full of distractions — make them work for you by getting up to do your cell phone time.  

It’s best to play this game with others. Recruit a friend, spouse, or your child — and at the end of the day, explain to each other how many points you racked up. It’s absolutely okay to boast and be competitive about your health points.

If you want to get tough, you can also subtract points for every time you sit for oh, 40 minutes. So if you sit for 80 minutes without getting up, you get a negative 2.

My guess is that if you do this for two days you’ll pick up some new habits that may stick long after you tire of the game. We can’t change behavior we don’t notice. Simply noticing how long you’re sitting — and writing down those points — will help break the sitting habit. This is the main insight of cognitive behavioral therapy. Its most famous technique is to ask patients to keep a tally of their self-punishing thoughts. It’s like magic — they become less powerful.

You can try a stand-up desk. I have one and get tired standing, so I move. Probably not as much as I should. You can also try a computer program that will alert you to move, but most people will eventually tune it out. I say, reward yourself. Fill your day with little rewards, and you’ll have more days to enjoy.


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