Why Every Desk Jockey and Every CEO Needs to Read Dr. James Levine’s New Book ‘Get Up!’

August 9, 2020

When Dr. James Levine’s first book Move a Little, Lose a Lot hit the shelves in 2009 it had tectonic implications on our understanding of “sitting disease” and what we needed to do to address our nation’s new leading cause of premature death. The book introduced Dr. Levine’s concept of non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or “NEAT” for short. NEAT is the class of activity that yields positive health results through frequent low-intensity movement, such as from using a standing- or treadmill desk. Speaking personally, Move a Little, Lose a Lot changed my life, my livelihood, and my entire sense of life purpose. So, yes, I went into Dr. Levine’s new book, Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It “pre-sold” on his philosophies. But I was curious to see whether this was just a second edition of the first book, or actually an entirely new book.


More Nuanced, More Personal, and Well-Written

For the average reader Get Up! is vastly more interesting than Move a Little, Lose a Lot was. Part of this is due to the new knowledge Dr. Levine and his Mayo Clinic lab have attained over the past five years. Equally compelling, however, is Dr. Levine’s improved ability to tell a compelling story – and often a very personal story at that. He discusses his own issues with obesity as a young man or his post-divorce depression (and resulting backslide into chairdom) with a frankness that made me feel like he was sitting on the exam table in one of those flimsy patient gowns inviting me to view the most private sections of his life story. Levine’s writing has become that intimate, and therefore all the more relatable to the reader.

Levine has had a lot of practice talking to hundreds of reporters, speaking at medical conferences, and addressing corporate management teams over the last few years. Perhaps this is why Get Up! leaves you with the sense that sitting disease has moved out of the realm of controversial debate and into the realm of accepted scientific fact. If his first book didn’t completely change your ideas of what a healthy lifestyle really means, this one is guaranteed to change your behaviors for the better.

We’re All Just Frogs Boiling in a Pot

Get Up! illustrates how our society has, in less than 200 years, traded a healthy, walking-centric existence for a severely unhealthy, chair and sofa-centric existence. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think that the progress of civilization from an agrarian, rural lifestyle to an urban, industrialized one is textbook example of how one boils a frog. Drop a frog into boiling water and it will jump right back out to save its skin. Drop a frog into cold water and turn the fire on, and it will eventually boil to death without realizing the rising temperature. The stove was turned on at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the water’s been getting warmer as affordable mass-produced automobiles filled out streets, as we started eating out at restaurants instead of growing and cooking our own food, and as so much quality television compels the average American to spend 5 hours a day watching it from a sofa. With the advent of the personal computer, the internet – and above all – email and Facebook, we’ve boiled ourselves nearly to death. Thankfully there’s still time to turn down the heat before we hit 212 degrees. But not much.

To be sure, Dr. Levine is a lab rat who loves his technology. Much of the “big data” research Levine has performed over the years would not have been possible without the development of computing technologies and microminiature accelerometers. But we have to face the music and recognize that we’ve gone down the wrong path as a society. Technology has increasingly made “real work” into motionless sitting in front of a computer screen rather than harvesting fruit, hewing timber or fishing the seas for dinner.

After reading the first few pages of the book I decided I would read the rest of it walking. We received a preview copy on Thursday and our managing editor assigned me the task of reading and reviewing it by Monday, so I read the entire 204 pages while on an extended walkabout this past weekend. Thankfully the weather was ideal. I was surprised how many people I passed by who shouted out to me, “Hey, reading a book while walking, that’s great!” Well yeah; if you take Levine’s advice to heart it’s exactly the kind of thing you should do. Ditch the chair, activate the legs. Of course if the weather wasn’t as ideal as it turned out to be I would still have read the book on the hoof, using one of my two treadmill desks.

Known among his disciples as the “godfather of sitting disease”, aka the “father of the treadmill desk” revolution, Dr. Levine has led a long and sometimes arduous battle to educate millions of sedentary workers about the negative effects of sitting. Such a daunting task necessarily begins with educating the mainstream media as well as convincing other doctors and medical institutions that, yes, chairs can actually kill people; or at least, make them very ill and shorten their life span significantly.

Which brings me to the book’s main weakness. While it does an excellent job of convincing us we need to, well, get up, the book doesn’t dive deep enough into how we are supposed to get our work done and sit less at the same time. While standing desks, treadmill desk, under-desk cycles and other modern weapons in the fight against chairdom are discussed in the book, the reader is left to their own devices to study up on what they can do to work while moving. Perhaps this is because Levine works for The Mayo Clinic, and therefore cannot profit from or promote commercial sales of products, even ones that are the first line of defense against sitting disease. While it wouldn’t have been hard to add more specific information on this topic, it’s perfectly understandable that Dr. Levine’s (and, by extension, The Mayo Clinic’s) role is not to commercialize its research findings. Numerous manufacturers and websites can and do fill that void.

Chairdom in Corporate America

In the book, Levine points out a subtle phenomenon in our business culture. We award more expensive, more comfortable chairs to higher-level managers and executives. In large enterprises chair budgets go roughly with the pay scale of the employee. Ironically, the higher up the food chain you go, the more comfortable the chair, the more you’re going to wind up sitting, and the shorter you will live. Add lots of time-zone-skipping travel; donut-enriched staff meetings; restaurant meals loaded with sugar, fat and salt; and the usual order of business and personal stress, and you can see why so many businesspeople, executives especially, are so unhealthy.

That’s one reason I included CEOs in the title of this review. From a self-preservation standpoint, what Levine has to say should be taken to heart by every stressed-out, chair-planted executive. But more importantly, CEOs are in a position to change their organizations’ culture NOW, and help reverse the incredibly dangerous trend line of our sedentary workers’ health. With 30% of the US population already pre-diabetic or fully diabetic, the cost impact of obesity and the chronic ailments that follow is already $6,700 per person annually, and rising, according to studies outlined in the book.

We CEOs cannot shirk the responsibility of looking out for employees’ health whether from a moral standpoint or a hard-nosed financial analysis of the impact of the chair sentences we’ve doled out with every job offer. I urge everyone who leads an organization of any size to read this book and learn what they can do to have a multiplier effect on our society’s health by empowering their employees to get moving – while getting the work done.

There are some very useful guidelines in the book for re-establishing a happy and healthy workplace, starting with “toss all the chairs into the basement,” but they lack any specific furniture or hardware recommendations. This brief primer from iMovR, New Strategies For Increasing Movement in the Workplace is an ideal companion piece for anyone who reads Dr. Levine’s book and wants to take the next step towards upgrading their employees’ workstations and meeting rooms with the latest in NEAT devices.

Get Up, and Get This Book

As of the time of this writing,Get Up! has been released to the public. I wholeheartedly recommend it to every physician, every manager, every teacher, every parent, and everyone who is concerned with sitting disease. The battle against sitting disease is no less challenging, and no less monumentally crucial to our future existence than the battle against climate change. With this second book Dr. Levine becomes to the battle against chairdom what Al Gore has been to the fight to stop global warming. I hope to see this book made into a documentary like An Inconvenient Truth – it’s that important to the future of our society.

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