The Tiny House Movement—What’s The Practical Size for Living Space?

Last night I watched Tiny: A Story About Living Small, a documentary by Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith, about Smith’s year building a tiny house. I’ve seen several news stories about tiny houses in the past few years, read some articles, and even met a handful of people who told me they’d love to build and live in their own tiny house. There is a certain appeal to them. Most tiny houses are personal works of art that reflect their owner’s philosophy about living simply. The tiny house movement counters the extravagant big house trend that has existed for decades. Most tiny houses are mobile homes so they appeal to people who want to travel. And they are a cheaper way to live.

Like the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s, I don’t think the tiny house movement is sustainable, or will appeal to most people. However, it is very appealing to a lot of people. And it brings up some very important philosophical questions. How much space does a person need to live comfortably? How much space should a person use to be environmentally ethical? How can we maximize the efficiency of the space we use? What’s the minimum space needed for optimal psychological existence for one person? How does the psychological living space change when there are two people? What about a family with children?

I live in a house that’s about 1,700 square feet. I’ve lived in larger and smaller homes. My wife lives out-of-town during the week in a one bedroom apartment, so for most of the week that 1,700 square feet is all mine. I’m currently using every room of the house, but I’m pretty sure I could do with less, much less. We have a living room and den. We have a dining room that seats six, and a breakfast area that can seat another six. I use the living room for reading, and the dining room for my Raspberry Pi computer setup. At a guess, I’m pretty sure I could keep all my stuff I use and consolidate it into a comfortable living space of 800 square feet. This isn’t counting what my wife might want. If I had to, I could give up a lot of stuff, and probably still be happy with 400-500 square feet. Still much bigger than the average tiny home.

In the film they profile tiny houses that ranged from 84 square feet to about 250 square feet. Most were in the 150-200 range. This is way smaller than what I’d ever want to live in. Of course, if everyone lived like tiny house people there certainly would be a lot more land for wildlife, and cities and towns would shrink dramatically.

I wonder if our population explosion is inspiring people to live with less, both as a financial necessity, and because we’re all being pushed together. I can’t help but think many of the people profiled want to get away from normal society.

Most of the tiny house people interviewed were people living by themselves, and I wonder if they are modern day Henry David Thoreaus? Tiny houses have the look of Thoreau’s Walden cabin. It’s not for everyone. Even in in the film Tiny, the girlfriend wanted to move to New York City, because that was here dream. Most of the tiny house people interviewed seemed happy to live with their books and cat. I didn’t see any large screen TVs and video game consoles in the tiny houses.

Nor do we see washers and dryers, large refrigerators and stoves, dishwashers, bathtubs, and I never spotted an air conditioner or hot water heater. Tiny houses are like living on a sailboat, travel trailer or RV. They are much smaller than even your typical double-wide. It would be a sacrifice for most people to live in one, so they convey a kind of spiritual living, and probably appeal to people who think a monkish lifestyle is good for their soul.

It appears that the common practice is to park tiny houses on other people’s land, often in backyards.  I don’t know about the legality of this. Nor do I understand the requirements for water and sewage. In the film they did show power coming from a heavy-duty extension cord, and from solar panels. I just read it’s common to depend on a toilet in a nearby house, or use composting or incinerator toilets. All of which sound like a hassle. So does going to the laundry.

I’m not against tiny living, but I think I’d prefer a tiny apartment that did have flush toilets. If we’re truly going to be environmental, I think the future will be in apartment living, and planned communities. Most people hate apartments because of the sound of other people. If they were soundproof, they might be more appealing. What would give them more hippie appeal is if the apartment building was integrated into a park, and car parking was away from the living areas, or the site located near good public transportation. If apartment buildings were designed as planned communities, targeted to specific kinds of people, they’d probably be even more appealing.

I think we do need to work at being less wasteful, more efficient, and far less polluting. The human race’s impact on Earth is becoming very close to be a cancer, if it hasn’t already. We’ve stolen so much animal habitat territory that humans have become another mass-extinction event in Earth’s history. I don’t think tiny houses are the answer though, not directly. My guess is most people will live in a tiny house no longer than Henry David Thoreau lived in the woods alone. And living in a tiny house for a year would probably teach all of us many valuable lessons. I can imagine a spiritual movement of people choosing to live in a tiny house for a period of time to learn what they truly need in life.

I found another documentary about the movement, We the Tiny House People. And Google says there are even more of them.

Here’s another short film about a very elegant tiny house.

If you want to see more, just follow this link to YouTube which offers many more films. It’s amazing how popular this movement is. Notice the other links. There seems to be part of a larger movement to build cheaper houses, which is also part of the DIY movement. Tiny houses might appeal to a large variety of people for many different reasons.  Just look at this Google page for images of tiny houses. Here’s one screen shot to give you an idea – click to make larger.

tiny-houses

Notice how creative an artistic these little houses are. Building a tiny house is much easier than building a full-size house, so part of the movement might be about just building a house of your own design. I wonder if parks for tiny houses will become popular like RV parks and mobile home subdivisions?

There’s quite a few websites devoted to tiny houses:

If I’m ever in Portland, Oregon, I’d like to stay in the Tiny House Hotel just to see what living in one is like. Other than that, I think in general, I’ll admire them from afar, although I wouldn’t mind visiting Tiny House Show if one came to town. However, the real life effect on me is to think about all the junk I live with now. This film makes me want to catalog all my possession and think about how many I really need. I have four computers, two tablets, two Kindles, and an iPod touch. Do I need so many? Of course not. Yet, I want more – an iMac and Chromebook. My Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer.

Watching these people live in tiny houses makes me realize how big my living habits are. It makes me want to clean our closets and drawers, and get rid of junk that I don’t need. It makes me want to do more with less. I just don’t want to live that small – but I would be willing to go smaller.

JWH

Our Window On Reality

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 18, 2014

Humans have five senses, but we experience them as a gestalt.  I call that sensation of perceiving everything around us as our window on reality.  A mouse or cockroach would have a much smaller window on reality.  I doubt a bacteria or virus have a window, but if they did, it would be incredible tiny. Humans naturally think they have the largest window on reality because of our egocentric belief we are the crown of creation. We’re not.

And can you imagine the window on reality that God has, if such a being existed? For all our glory we are limited beings, neither angels nor devils, but just a creature of random evolution, one among an unknown many, that use self-awareness to view reality out the window of their limited senses.

Humans that are deaf or blind, or have lost their sense of smell or taste do have smaller windows, and if you close your eyes, you can shut your window to a fraction of perception, but not completely. When you are asleep or unconscious, your window does shut to your conscious mind, but your unconscious mind still peeps out. Only when the brain dies does your window shut completely.

milky-way

The astounding thing about reality is it’s indifferent to the self-aware beings that view it. Reality existed before we were born, and will continue to exist after we die. Our life is merely a short time span when we wake up and look out our window on reality and then we die, and our windows closes forever. Human brains have a tendency to explain what they see out their window by making up stories. Because most of these stories have no relationship with the truth of reality, this tendency is called the narrative fallacy. The human mind has evolved through three stages so far: faith, reason and science. Faith and reason only created delusions about what we see out our windows. Our collaborative efforts at science gives us the hope that we’re all measuring the same reality.

Our window on reality distorts our perception to the size of reality. We assume we’re seeing 100% but we don’t. The visual spectrum is a tiny fragment of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Our range of hearing is also a tiny fragment of sound frequencies. We’ve all heard stories about the fantastic senses of various animals and imagined what that would be like. And then there’s the matter of perspective. The window on reality an eagle peers from at thousands of feet above Earth is much different from ours as we walk along the sidewalk.  And imagine how reality would appear if we had three eyes spaced equally distant around our head giving us a 360 degree view.

If you are familiar with cosmology you’ll know our view on reality is extremely microscopic compared to the true size of reality. Imagine being an atom and how much you’d know about the Earth from your tiny viewpoint of reality.  Compared to the known universe, you’d be smaller than an atom. The same logic holds true for the sub-atomic worlds that are invisible to us, because the ultra small can be truly large from the right perspective.

animals-ants-head-insects-microscopic-1018944-3000x2121

What would our window on reality feel like if we had eyes that could focus from what a scanning electron microscope can see to what the Hubble telescope can take in? We’re building robot bodies now that will eventually have artificial minds. We could give them all kind of powerful senses we don’t have. Their window on reality will make ours feel like a peephole.

We expand our window on reality using our imagination to give us virtual windows on reality. If you look up at the night sky you can imagine what you can’t see with your knowledge of astronomy. When we walk through forests, or along tidal bays, we can annotate what we see from knowledge of biology, botany, chemistry and geology.

It is tragic that our narrative fallacies have distorted what we see out our window on reality. We kill each other over disagreements about what we think we see. To kill someone is to close their window forever. That doesn’t change reality. Nor does it confirm your narrative fallacy. We can believe anything, but only science, with consistent observations, reveal what we might be seeing.

JWH

Making Sense of a Zillion Pieces of Advice

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 17, 2014

Have you ever notice how much advice the Internet offers?  The web probably has more advice articles than the complete history of women’s magazines.  From how to organize your life, to the most healthy foods to eat, to the best cities to live in, the quickest meals to fix, to how to fight memory loss, or meet the love of your life,  or which smartphones to buy, and so on, and so on. Some of the advice is based on scientific studies, but most of it is from personal experience, and probably a good deal is just some blogger making shit up.

What if we could consolidate all that advice into meta-lists so we could discover what the most common tips reveal? If one dietician says eating broccoli is great for your health, would you start eating it three times a week?  What if 2,000 different scientific studies proclaimed the virtues of broccoli? What if they said broccoli increases your sexual stamina, reduces cavities, clears your skin and conquers constipation?  At what point are we willing to take notice and act on advice? We’re all failures at keeping New Year’s resolutions, so is all this advice wasted on the undisciplined? Or are we all slowly evolving and improving from all these studies?  It’s taken about fifty years for most people to stop smoking.  And even with a Mt. Everest pile of evidence, many people still light up. When and how does advice become overwhelmingly convincing?

memory-loss

Memory Loss

The 800-pound gorilla squatting in my generation’s living room is memory loss. I don’t know how scary dementia is to people under 55, but for us folks over 55, it’s scarier than a serial killer with an idling chain saw. “Memory Loss From Alzheimer’s Disease Reversed For the First Time With Lifestyle Changes” is one article that grabbed my attention.  It’s based on this press report from the Buck Institute on a very small trial of ten patients.  Nine patients with varying degrees of dementia improved after 3-6 months following a specific 36-point  lifestyle guideline.  The tenth person with late stage Alzheimer’s didn’t improve.  The full report in PDF was published in AGING, September 2014, Vol. 6 No. 9.  Scroll down to Table 1. Therapeutic System 1.0.  The entire system is not easy to describe, but here’s a summary.  How many of these pieces of advice are you willing to follow to save your mind?

  • Give up all simple carbohydrates and gluten
  • Give up processed food
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits
  • Eat wild-caught fish
  • Meditate twice a day
  • Do yoga
  • Sleep at least 7-8 hours a night
  • Take CoQ-10, fish oil, melatonin, methylcobaliamin and vitamin D3 supplements?
  • Use electric toothbrush and flossing tool
  • Take hormone replacement therapies
  • Fast at last 12 hours between dinner and breakfast
  • Don’t eat 3 hours before bedtime
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week

How many articles have you read in your life that recommended some of these lifestyle changes?  Over the years I’ve seen some of these recommendations hundreds of times. Why didn’t I start following them in my twenties, thirties or forties?  Why did I wait until my sixties to get down to business? Even though this report in AGING came out in September, 2014, its advice is quite common.  Just read these other articles.

This is just a half dozen articles out of whole libraries devoted to the subject. Yet, if you take the time to read them, you’ll see consistent pieces of advice show up time and again, and even interesting contrasting advice.  Such as sleep at least 7-8 hours, but it’s bad to sleep more than 9 hours.

It’s key in evaluating articles on the Internet to understand where the knowledge comes from. First check if it’s based on a scientific study, and see if you can track down the original study. Popular articles summarize scientific studies, and sometimes they slant their summaries.  See if there are other articles from other sites that take a different slant. Great essays will cover multiple studies, and even explain conflicting studies.

Most articles aren’t based on scientific studies. In those cases you have to evaluate the expertise of the person giving the advice. If you’re reading dating advice, what experience does the romance guru have? Is it just personal, or do they have a relevant degree, or work for Match.com? Plain old personal advice can be valuable, especially if that person’s insights are savvy and practical, and they fit your own observations and experience.

My point here is not to write specifically about memory loss prevention, but to show that there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge, and maybe even wisdom to found on any subject.  How do we evaluate the wealth of information?  Most people find it confusing that on so many topics there’s lots of contradictory advice.  So, how do we decide which recommendations are valid? Wisdom doesn’t come easy.

That’s what I’m wishing for here, a web site that collects and contrasts all the studies and averages them out for every issue we want to consider. I want a Meta-Advice site, a one-stop-shop for evaluating advice, organized like Wikipedia, that has an army of specialists hammering out summaries and comparisons of all the research for any specific subject people want advice on. Google is great, but if you use Wikipedia a lot, you’ll understand why it’s structural approach is better for organizing advice information.

Imagine going to this Meta-Advice site and looking up memory loss and CoQ-10.  Let’s say it evaluates 57 different research studies. The summary might not be conclusive – science rarely is – but it would give us the best current answer, even if it’s only a statistic like in 63% of cases using 23,204 subjects, memory retention was improved when CoQ-10 was used in trials varying between 6 months and three years.  I’m making up these numbers, but you should get what I mean.

When research scientists or PhD candidates want to explore new territory they do a literature review of all the previous studies. They need to find the boundaries of what’s known and not known. This Meta-Advice site should do the same thing, and make it understandable to the layman where the boundary of knowledge is, and what they can learn from it.

It is possible for an individual to go to Google Scholar and do a search on “Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention.”  But the results are overwhelming. Only the truly dedicated will wade through the massive number of articles available. That’s why a site like Wikipedia, where knowledgeable editors can predigest the information for the average reader would be a huge help. The Internet is coming up with all kinds of new ways of doing things. We have no idea what cognitive tools will be invented soon. If you think of the effective nature of what Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, IMDB, Flickr, etc., they all make managing information easier. I believe advice management is in need of an Internet makeover.  

JWH

The Job of Blogging

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blogging is an interesting hobby, but strange in some ways.  Most blogs are like diaries, yet before the Internet most folks would be horrified to have their diaries read before they died.  Blogging is a bit like writing papers for school, and most students absolutely hated writing research papers and book reports. Blogging has an element of journalism, so maybe its popularity reflects a strong desire for bloggers to be reporters. However, there’s tens of millions of blogs, most going unread, as are most daily newspapers. If I really wanted to be read I should try and write stuff for popular web sites, that’s where the readers are going. Writing for professional sites should be my ambition, but its easier to just to be my own editor.

In some ways blogging is confessional, and that doesn’t require readers. Writing is therapeutic. But I don’t think I’d take all this time to write if I didn’t think I had readers. The urge to write encompasses the urge to inform and entertain. I’m not sure how entertaining and informative I am, but I keep trying. Before I changed my domain name, I was getting 200-400 hits a day, with occasional spikes.  My best day ever was 4,521. Evidently switching names has screwed up things with Google, because now I only get 100-150 hits a day. Most of those lost hits were for product review pages. And that tells me something – web surfers mostly want information from the Internet. And that’s reasonable. Most of the pages I still get hits on deal with science fiction. When I write about me I get no hits.

The common advice to bloggers from successful bloggers is to publish regularly.  At least once a week. That means writing 52 read-worthy essays a year. Most popular bloggers publish several times a week, but often, they are the subject of their writing. My life is not as entertaining as The Bloggess. Even if I was more fascinating, I doubt I could handle the stress of making myself more interesting. Besides I love writing about interesting things that aren’t me.  For instance, last night on PBS I started watching a new series, How We Got to Now.  The first episode was called “Clean” and it was about how America started cleaning up its act. It featured a fascinating segment about how Chicago first built sewers.  They actually raised up the buildings to make space. Now that grabbed my attention!

Street_Raising_on_Lake_Street

[Click to enlarge]

If I could, I’d want to write nonfiction books on science and history, but I’m not that disciplined and dedicated. Thus, blogging for me is a way to write tiny reports about the books I read, the documentaries I see, and the web pages I discover, that are worthy of wider attention. People do the exact same thing on Facebook and Twitter.  Blogging is just more verbose. Blogging gives me more time to make my case.

Few writers write original content. They report on people, places and events. Most journalism is a kind of history. Reviewers report on other content creators. For example, the raising of Chicago’s buildings is something I could research and write about, but why should I compete with what Wikipedia has published, or PBS? Blogging is more liked linked lists in computer programming. If you read other web sites about the topic, for instance Gizmodo, you’ll see no one writes much on the Internet about any particular subject, and they often share the same facts, links and images. The image above is at every site I visited. If you follow the links, you will get more information, but not much. Following several links give a bigger picture. If you want true in-depth reporting, you have to read books.

A great blogger will consolidate a greater amount of information, closer to magazine pieces in size. Open Culture and Brain Pickings are my favorite examples. Open Culture just provided me with a wonderful piece about Alice Guy-Blaché, a women director also mentioned in last week’s Makers on PBS that I wanted to research. I wonder if Jonathan Crow was inspired to write his piece because of Makers? Or was it an interesting coincidence.

As a bookworm and documentary junky, I’m constantly finding new facts that startle me. For example, the other night I watched The Galapagos Affair, about a tiny historical incidence from the 1930s, involving a German couple moving to an uninhabited island in the Galapagos. Their letters home made them world famous as a modern day Adam and Eve. Eventually five more people join them, and two were murdered, leaving an interesting mystery. I found this bizarre history riveting, and highly recommend the documentary that’s available on Netflix Streaming.

eve and adam

If I was a better journalist, say up to Maria Popova’s standards, I’d go research to see if more people in history have tried to play Adam and Eve. If Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter got the idea, so must have others. As a kid I was always fascinated with Swiss Family Robinson type stories. As a blogger, that should be my job, to track down more information. But to be honest, that requires a lot of work, and I don’t know if I’m up to it. I’m now working in a space beyond Twitter and Facebook, but not yet a full article.

That’s what this essay is about. Even though I’m not being paid, I feel blogging is a kind of job, and comes with responsibilities. While I have been nattering about blogging, I hope I’ve provided some useful information, and maybe turned you onto some interesting reading. Is that enough though?  How much information do I have to provide to make it worth your time to read what I write?

JWH

Classifying Science Fictional Ideas

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 11, 2014

We like to think that science fiction has no limits. We love to believe that science fiction writers can imagine anything.  But is that true?  Reading your first few hundred science fiction stories, it does feel like the genre has unlimited avenues of exploration.  However, after a lifetime of reading, over a thousand science fiction novels, and countless science fiction short stories, I’ve started feeling the genre is limited, and limited patterns are emerging.  Even if there’s the potential for an infinite number of science fiction stories, there’s always the limitation of demarcation.  We can divide things into what is science fiction, and what is not science fiction.

biological classfication

What if we classified science fictional ideas like biological classification where science fiction would be compared to how we classify life.  What would be the domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species of science fictional ideas?  How would we organize novels into a hierarchy?  Has science fictional ideas evolved out of each other to present an evolutionary taxonomy?  Or are there other structures that we can all agree on?  I’m just opening this idea up for discussion and will present a test classification for consideration.  I’d like to see other classification systems suggested, and amendments to mine.  So post links and suggestions in the comments section.  For instance, Wikipedia offers two classifications:  lists and themes.  Other ideas can be found in their outline of science fiction.

Here’s my first test classification.  [Click to enlarge.]

Classfication of science fiction

I wanted to create the smallest number of domains possible, and I was hoping to find a single highly descriptive word for each.  I flubbed on “Created Beings.”  I’m not really fond of “Humanity” either.  My system mainly thinks of science fiction as stories about the future – future Earth, future humans, meeting aliens, creating new life forms, and traveling through the universe.  Most of the main themes of science fiction would be equal to biological kingdoms – robots, alien invasions, interplanetary travel, post-humans, etc.

Making the classification of science fiction be a perfect analogy to the biological classification of life would be a kluge, but it would be neat if we could map specific novels to be the equivalent of a species.  If we could come up with a successful classification system it should be possible to select any science fiction novel or short story and put it into the structure – assuming we could classify SF stories as being about one topic.

Science fiction novels are usually about many ideas.  For example. The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov.  It could be classified under robots or galactic empires.  However, it’s mostly about robots.  Then again, some people might claim it’s mostly about agoraphobia and space colonies.  And where would we put such a bizarre novel as Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein?  Under my system I’d file it under Humanity, Mind and Philosophy, although Religion might work too.

If you wrote a novel about how intelligent robots create an Earthly utopia, would it be classified under Earth or Created Beings?  There are animals that give biologists trouble when classifying, so we should expect problem novels too.  On the other hand, we could think of a different way of looking at classification.  Think of classifying books for library card catalog systems.  These systems allow for multiple subject entries, but even in libraries, books are shelved under single subject groups.  And I tend to think most writers ultimately think of their books as having a major theme.

Classifying science fictional ideas is an idle amusement, yet it’s a revealing way to think about science fiction.  A way to give a big picture overview of the genre.  Like having the mental ability to instantly distinguish between cats and dogs, such a classification system would define science fiction.  For example, I would never file traditional vampire and werewolves stories into my classification of science fiction.  Even though many people casually dump stories of the undead into the genre because they think science fiction is a dumping ground for anything weird, I believe we need to think of the genre in more precise terms.

We can also think of classifying fiction in general, so that fiction is the highest level, and the genres – literary, mystery, western, science fiction, romance, etc. – are the domains.  This would make Science Fiction one branch off of Fiction.  But if genre is Kingdom, do we need five layers of classification between it and the specific work which would be the Species?  Is Fiction, Genre, Theme, Work enough?  That makes me think of using Fiction, Genre, Theme, Time, Setting, Topic, Work.  That way The Naked Sun would be classified as Fiction, Science Fiction, Robots, Future, Colony World, Conflicting Cultures, The Naked Sun.

Many themes from classifying general fiction can be applied to any of the specific themes of science fiction.  Thus you could add romance or war to almost any of my SF categories.

As you can see, this could lead to all kinds of possibilities.  A classification system really helped understand the organization of biological life.  Would such a classification system help in the understanding of fiction?

[I use Xmind to create the mind map above.  You can get this free program that runs under Windows, OS X and Linux if you want to create your own classification system.]

JWH

Are We Becoming Cyborgs?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 9, 2014

Because of a pinched nerve I’m having difficulty typing.  Because I want to write, I’m seeking alternatives to a keyboard and computer screen.  This failure to type is revealing something about my current state of being.  My mind and body have adapted to the computer.  When I can’t use the computer, or the Internet is down, I’m anxious, and feel physical withdrawal.  I hate this feeling.  Even though my arm hurts more as I type, I keep typing.  Sort of crazy, isn’t it?

handwriting

I’ve tried dictating, and I’ve tried hand writing, and I’ve discovered I’m lousy at both.  When I was young I could write longhand for hours.  Now I can barely scratch out a few minutes of a childish looking print.  Fifty years of typewriters and word processors have ruined me for that ancient tool – the pen. 

The net is full of stories about the death of penmanship.  I used to think, “So what, we’ve got computers.”  Now I regret those thoughtless words.  My left arm burns, throbs and stings as I type, and I feel like banging on it like  Dr. Strangelove.  

I’ve become a cyborg.  The transformation has snuck up me.  If you think you’re still 100% human, try going without your smartphone for a week.

I realize now I shouldn’t have let myself become so adapted to one way of writing.  My body has integrated with cyberspace, and now I feel handicapped when when I can jack in.  Yet, I know fully well that writers were immensely productive before the 20th century with just pen and paper.  Helen Keller wrote inspiringly without seeing or hearing.

Even if I can get my doctors to fix my neck and arm, I think I need to relearn handwriting and pick up the skill of dictation.  I’ve read about a number of authors who write by talking and they claim its immensely productive.  My ability to speak is better than my handwriting, but not by much. Both are so linear.  My thinking depends on word processing features, spelling checkers, and referencing Wikipedia and Google. I now need the Internet to complete my sentences.

Because I’ve thoroughly aggravated my arm, I need to go rest it a couple hours.

JWH

Sitting is the New Smoking

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The new catch phrase I’m hearing is “Sitting is the New Smoking.”  This statement conveys so much.  It triggers memories about my dad, who died when I was 18, and he was 49.  He was a smoker, and survived two heart attacks and a stroke before he died on his third heart attack.  I always wondered how long he would have lived if he had never smoked.  It’s a shame he didn’t learn that smoking was bad when he was growing up, but that knowledge just wasn’t common back then.  What future common knowledge are we missing out on now?  Is sitting really the new smoking?

I have to wonder if my life would have been different if I had known sitting was so bad.  I’ve had back problems for years, and at the moment I’m having neck problems, with a pinched nerve.  Writing this essay is causing increasing pain in my arm.  And the pain is more than physical.  I am reminded of a classic episode of The Twilight Zone about a bookworm named Henry Beamis.  All he wanted to do was read put people wouldn’t let him.  Finally he’s the last man on Earth and has all the time in the world to read, and he breaks his glasses.  I retired thinking I’d have all the time in the world to write and read, and at this moment I can’t do either without aggravating my pains.  I’ve become Henry Beamis.

Pack Matthews gives me hope though in his TED Talk, “Sitting is the New Smoking but you’ve got Options.”

Matthews says pains are like canaries in a coal mine, warning us that we need to do something different immediately.  But he also promises that we’re never too old to improve.  Our body’s ability to readapt is impressive.  This video is well worth watching.  Even if you’re not suffering, knowing that sitting is the new smoking when you’re young and healthy is very important too.

When I was a kid I was very active, but as the decades progressed I’ve become more and more sedentary.  Even when I was a programmer and sat at my chair all day long I got up a lot, helping people out all over a four story building, and often in other buildings.  Now that I’m retired I spend almost all my time sitting, and its caught up to me.  I’ve got to develop routines of more activity.  In the video above, Matthews shows people a simple test to measure potential longevity as it relates to physical mobility.  Currently, I’d score very low.  But he promises that it’s possible to increase my score.

Watch the video and try the test yourself.  You might be surprised.

Just how bad is the sedentary lifestyle?  Is it truly equal to the life-shortening effects of cigarettes consumption?  The studies aren’t saying skipping exercise is bad for you, but the actual act of prolonged sitting is bad, and even causes cancer.  The trouble is we all do a lot of sitting.  Most of us work at a desk all day long at work or school, then we come home and watch TV for hours, or sit at the computer or play video games.  Even the educational pastime of reading which is good for your mind is bad for your body.

Just read some of the many articles on Google about this topic.

The conundrum we face is how to integrate more activity into our ass-in-the-chair lives.  I’ve been laid up where the only comfortable position I can find is reclined in a La-Z-Boy has made me think of alternatives for not being able to sit at my desk.  One thing I’ve considered is dictating my writing and converting it with Dragon Dictate to Word files.  That same solution would work with walking and standing.  However, my spinal stenosis and degenerative disc problems limit my walking, but I am trying to walk more.

Matthews wasn’t the only TED Talker to attack sitting.  Nilofer Merchant presented “Got a meeting?  Take a walk.”

Of course, my problem is writing at the computer.  How can I take a walk and write?  Well, people have come up with a solution, the treadmill desk.  I’ve seen stories about them on TV, and there’s lots about them on the Internet.  Here Jordan Keyes talks about this treadmill desk after using it for almost two years.

The above video didn’t say much about the health value of using a treadmill desk to me until I saw this older video, when we see Keyes in a much larger body.  Of course, he’s doing more than walking and typing to lose weight, but the two videos do effectively show how his efforts have made a change in his life.

But not everyone likes treadmill desks.  I’m not quite ready to spend $1200-1500 yet, but I’m thinking hard about this.  If anyone reading this blog uses a treadmill desk, please leave a comment below.

There are many things to consider in such a setup.  Unless you’re always working at the treadmill desk you’ll have to have a sit down desk also, meaning two computer setups, or using a laptop you move around a lot.  Many people are using standing desks that can adjust to sitting and standing.  These come in a huge variety.  And it’s possible to get just a flat treadmill to move under such an adjustable desk.

But if we stand around all the time, won’t standing become the new sitting?  I would imagine the key is to keep moving in lots of positions.  It’s really not practical to avoid sitting all day long.  I often see advice suggesting we get up and move around more, maybe once an hour.  I was recently told to think of my posture every time I go through a doorway, and was even given some exercises to try using with the doorway.  My chiropractor told me my ears should be above my shoulder, and that I had bad posture.  This fit right in with this graphic about ergonomics at the computer workstation.

office-ergonomics-by-physiotherapists 

Note how they want ears, shoulders and hip to line up.  I’ve developed sort of an old man slump, with my head tilted forward like a turtle’s head coming out of its shell.

I’ve always learned a lot physical therapy.  I think what I need to do, or even what we all need to do, if spend a few moments each hour doing yoga and physical therapy stretches.  I’ve already begun to ride my exercise bike more while watching television, but dang, even that involves sitting.

Sitting might be the new smoking, but giving up sitting is going to be impossible, at least for me, so the most I can hope for is keeping my ass out of the chair as much as possible.

JWH