A little while ago I wrote about designing workshops to incorporate physical activity. I've long thought that conventional conferences and workshops, in which people spend most of their time in chairs (often near plates of bagels and boxes of coffee), end up being self-subverting by creating conditions that make it harder for people to concentrate, think, and collaborate. In yesterday's New York Times, Olivia Judson writes about the perils of sitting— it's "one of the most passive things you can do. You burn more energy by chewing gum or fidgeting than you do sitting still in a chair," and the emergence of a body of research indicating that long periods of inactivity are deleterious to our health.
Several strands of evidence suggest that there’s a “physiology of inactivity”: that when you spend long periods sitting, your body actually does things that are bad for you.
As an example, consider lipoprotein lipase. This is a molecule that plays a central role in how the body processes fats; it’s produced by many tissues, including muscles. Low levels of lipoprotein lipase are associated with a variety of health problems, including heart disease. Studies in rats show that leg muscles only produce this molecule when they are actively being flexed (for example, when the animal is standing up and ambling about). The implication is that when you sit, a crucial part of your metabolism slows down.
Nor is lipoprotein lipase the only molecule affected by muscular inactivity. Actively contracting muscles produce a whole suite of substances that have a beneficial effect on how the body uses and stores sugars and fats.
Yet more proof that knowledge work, and I would argue collaborative work in particular, needs to take seriously the idea that cognition is embodied.