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Winston Churchill took to smoking cigars at age 20, appropriately enough in Cuba, during the Spanish-Cuban War in 1895. He never stopped. For the rest of his life, he smoked as religiously as he drank. When asked, toward the end of his life, to explain his longevity, he named the two vices he regarded more as rites. Smoke good cigars, he said, and drink fine brandy. He died at 90. Although British censors now airbrush his cigar from historic Second World War photographs, Churchill could yet become a posthumous model for healthy habits and long lives.

In his time, he was celebrated as much for his literary achievements - 77 volumes, thousands of speeches and essays - as for his statesmanship. (He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.) Remarkably, using a wood lectern attached to a wall in his study at Chartwell, his beloved manor home in Kent, he wrote and dictated much of this work standing up, often striding about the room, as one historian put it, "in a cloud of cigar smoke." He regarded writing as a physical as well as an intellectual exercise. But he frequently combined it with bricklaying and grounds work: "200 bricks and 200 words a day."

Churchill's example now appears relevant again because of the remarkable findings of James Levine, a medical researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. For the past five years, Dr. Levine has sought the answer to a simple question: Why do some people, who consume the same calories as other people and who exercise the same, gain more weight than those people? The answer, as revealed in a series of experiments using highly sensitive motion sensors to track subjects' moment-by-moment movements: The people who didn't put on weight moved more than the people who did.

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In a New York Times report on Dr. Levine's research, writer James Vlahos noted that the difference wasn't the result of exercise. In these experiments, subjects wore motion sensors from morning to night, at home and work - and the rules prohibited conventional exercise of any kind. The people who did not gain weight had merely moved around more in their daily routines: walked more, took the stairs more, got up from their desks more, fidgeted more and, most significantly, stood more. On average, Mr. Vlahos said, the subjects who gained weight sat for two hours a day more than the subjects who didn't. Movement matters. Indeed, the mere bending over to tie a shoelace helps control weight - and helps prolong life.

Sitting still, in other words, is highly dangerous to your health. Your muscles instantly relax when you sit. Your calorie-burn rate falls (to one calorie a minute). Your risk of obesity rises. Your risk of death increases. Quoting other current research, Mr. Vlahos reports that men who sit for six hours a day, in their off-work hours, have a 20-per-cent higher risk of premature death than men who sit for three hours. For every incremental hour of TV-watching a day, people increase their risk of premature death by 11 per cent.

As measured by motion sensors, obese people average 1,500 "daily movements" and 600 minutes in sitting time: 10 hours. A farm worker, on the other hand, averages 5,000 "daily movements" and 300 minutes in sitting time: five hours. But Dr. Levine says that there are more risks in sitting than the mere physical consequences. Go into a corporate environment, he says, and you immediately sense the malaise that comes from sitting all day: "The soul of the nation is sapped."

The science here sounds intuitively promising. People need, in a word, to work for a living - and the human body counts every muscle motion as essential work. From this perspective, we need radically different public-health policies to combat obesity. The first important thing to do (according to Dr. Levine) is to stop thinking of food as the cause of human fatness - and to start thinking of terminal inertia instead. The second thing to do is to get rid of some chairs and desks. Apparently, a private-sector beginning has been made. Steelcase, the office furniture company, now sells a "treadmill desk" - a 21st century lectern that comes with conventional treadmill, computer monitor, keyboard and work desk - except for the cloud of smoke, very Churchillian.

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About the Author
Neil Reynolds

Neil Reynolds is an Ottawa writer whose columns on national economic issues appear in Wednesday's and Friday's Globe and Mail. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Vancouver Sun and the Ottawa Citizen. More

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