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December 4, 2014

Walk away from the chair: Programs encourage staff, faculty to be more active

Sedentary lifestyle increases all sorts of health problems, lecturer notes

empty chair“When you hear the word ‘exercise,’ what does it mean to you?” Renee Rogers, faculty member in the Department of Health and Physical Activity, asked the 70 people who turned out for her Staff Association Council-sponsored talk on wellness Nov. 19.

Attendees quickly volunteered the reactions she expected: “Time consuming … hard work … pain.”

“The word ‘exercise’ is more of a negative term than a positive term out there,” Rogers allowed. For many people, it conjures up memories of being uncomfortable, sore or having to take part in unwanted athletics.

“There’s no flexibility in my life schedule to fit in another 30 minutes” is another common reaction, Rogers added. “Right now it’s cold … and then I’m tired,” she hears.

Rogers thought she was going to change the world after earning her doctorate at Pitt in exercise physiology and joining the School of Education. Instead, she discovered she had to change her own methods of encouraging fitness in people.

“Everybody says they want to lose weight,” but perhaps an easier goal might be to simply “center yourself around your health,” she said. “If you are that person who is sitting all day long, I’m not going to ask you to exercise. I’m going to ask you to move from sedentary to light activity.”

Rogers manages the University Club fitness center and Pitt’s health and fitness program, but having a fitness center and hoping faculty and staff will take its courses “isn’t enough,” she realized.

“How can I change the perception of exercise?” she said. One way to change people’s viewpoint is to replace the word, and the idea, with “being active,” since simply moving around more often is associated with better health.

Of course, she admitted, there also are health benefits from changing our eating habits and body weight, but too many people find working on all those changes at once “completely overwhelming. Maybe we just need to take a step back.”


The keys to helping us be more active, she said, are: Practice (repeated actions that create efficiency); engagement (invoking our interest and attention); flow (a greater awareness of our actions), and mindfulness (an intentional grasp of everything that is going on around us).

Essentially, her efforts are aimed at developing the practice of activity in people, prompting them to “engage in mindful behaviors that are beyond the flow” of everyday life, in which we are too often sedentary.

Rather than jumping from no or little activity to the intensity of exercise, Rogers aims to push people up a notch along the activity spectrum, at least to light activity, then perhaps to moderate activity, and finally to exercise.

Exercise physiologists measure our activity in METs — units of metabolism. One MET represents our resting energy expenditure; the METs increase as our energy level increases. Just by standing up and moving around, people expend up to three METs. Moderate to vigorous activity expends even more METs.

“We’ve got to get up out of our chairs to increase energy level and increase health benefits,” Rogers said. That’s because the more we are sedentary, the more our bodies become deconditioned to activity. The sedentary lifestyle — which is developing into a full-fledged medical condition, Sedentary Lifestyle Syndrome, she said — increases the incidence of cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and pulmonary diseases as well as cancers and earlier deaths in people. Obesity is leading to increases in the prevalence of diabetes; in fact, any body mass index, or BMI, above 25 increases a person’s mortality risk.

“We’ve got a problem,” she said.

Rogers displayed a chart showing activity levels trending down among U.S. residents since 1965, noting that computer-centered occupations have been a large contributor to this decline. A recent survey of people in academic occupations shows that they spend about 13 hours a day sitting, “and we’re not including sleeping,” she said. Forty-one percent of Americans get an insufficient amount of physical activity and 17 percent get none at all.

Acute effects of being sedentary begin to develop within seven days, including metabolic changes. Not putting our body weight on our full skeleton can, over time, weaken bones, she reported.

Increased activity has an effect on health outcomes independent of our current fitness level, while inactivity poses a greater risk for everyone, the research shows, from the fit to the obese.

“Have we evolved for the better?” Rogers asked. She flashed the classic illustration of evolution, showing a man progressing from an apelike creature to an upright human, on to someone stooped, using hand tools, and finally hunched over a computer. In another version Rogers displayed, the final image of humankind was an obese man sipping a giant soda.


To show attendees how simple it would be to increase their activity, Rogers enlisted the aid of her doctoral student, Alysia See, to demonstrate simple at-work activities: repetitively standing and sitting, or marching with knees and arms thrust up and down. Rogers also recommended that employees sign up for the Be Fit program, which she began this fall to offer text prompts for daily activities and links to instructive videos.

“The idea is not to additionally burden you,” she said, but only to shift you out of your work flow and make the day less sedentary.

The most successful such programs, she noted, target a specific population’s needs. And a survey of about 400 Be Fit users found that they sit nearly seven hours of their eight-hour workday.

So Be Fit suggests specific walking paths at Pitt, as well as activities for the office-bound. For instance, one brief Be Fit video, “Walking Wednesdays,” demonstrates several easy activities to undertake each day, such as using the stairs instead of elevators, rising during phone calls to move and walking over to colleagues instead of phoning them.

Be Fit, currently with 1,126 subscribers, is available at by clicking on “Health and Fitness Program.”

For those who have the time and dedication to take a class or use the gym, Pitt’s health and fitness program center at Trees Hall, open to Pitt employees, family members and local residents, offers free weights, ellipticals, Expresso cycling and other equipment. Group fitness classes are available in Trees and in Bellefield Hall, including aerobics, yoga, Pilates, indoor cycling, kettle bells and  Zumba. For Pitt employees, classes are $50 each, while use of the equipment costs $50 per semester. In Trees, guided personalized programming also is available at no extra charge.

The University Club fitness center has more of a private-club atmosphere, Rogers explained, since it is available to Pitt employees only. The $40 monthly fee includes unlimited classes and locker room and towel service. Members have access to the fitness center  and can work with a personal weight manager, if they choose. In three months, the average center participant loses 12 pounds and, after six months, 16 pounds, she said.

“Every step in the positive direction of moving more,” she concluded, “is increasing [energy] expenditure and possibly moving you in the direction of better health outcomes.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 8