Flawless Monarch Butterfly Flying on Isolated White

The Downside of Sitting

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jul 22, 2012    •    666 Views

I’ve been thinking about the economic connection between sitting and butterflies.

Our story starts with sitting studies. Pulling together the data from surveys covering 167,000 adults, researchers have concluded that you might live longer if you sit less. More specifically, people who sit for less than 3 hours daily live two years longer. MIGHT is crucial here because the study, based on data amassed from other studies, seemed to establish more correlation than causation.

The physiological reason for the downside of sitting involves how we metabolize fats. Standing, we activate more muscle groups and process more fats and burn more calories. There is no free lunch though since too much standing harms us also. From varicose veins to impeding fine motor skills from poor posture, the problems of standing when we work are potentially life threatening also. To avoid all the complications of sitting and standing, you could just decide to exercise energetically before and after work. However, scientists believe vigorous exercise does not offset the impact of excessive sitting.

Perceiving sitting as inactivity, how does the US compare with other countries? We are relatively inactive. Few of us bicycle or walk to work compared to China or France or Denmark.  Based on exercise also, we are low on the scale although one reason is that more affluent developed nations tend toward inactivity. Bangladesh and India have relatively active populations while the US and the UK do not.

Okay, what difference does all of this make? It took me to butterflies. In his Teaching Company course, “Thinking Like An Economist,” Smith Professor Randall Bartlett places the butterfly effect with other five basic ideas in his economic toolkit. A part of chaos theory, the butterfly effect was explained by James Gleick in Chaos (p. 23 ):

  • “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
  • For want of a shoe, the horse was lost;
  • For want of a horse, the rider was lost;
  • For want of a rider, the battle was lost;
  • For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost!”


One tiny butterfly flutter (no nail) and the results built to a seemingly unrelated massive consequence (no kingdom). Or as Barlett says, “the law of unanticipated consequences.”

The millions of jobs (the butterflies) created by our service based economy generate the inactivity that affects our health negatively and continues to build with massive consequences. Do you agree?

Research reports on inactivity and sitting were in The Lancet and  BMJ Open while news articles appeared in WSJ.com and Slate.com. And here is a Forbes slideshow on “The Laziest Countries in the World.”

Finally, some stats on worldwide inactivity from The Lancet:

Percent of Population That is Inactive: Self-Reports No Moderate or Vigorous Exercise Routine

Country Percent Inactive
UK 63.3
UAE 62.5
Japan 60.2
Portugal 51.0
Spain 50.2
Brazil 49.2
USA 40.5
Denmark 35.1
Canada 33.9
China 31
Germany 28.0
Estonia 17,2
India 15.6
Greece 15.6
Mongolia 9.4


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