One prescription for reversing the effects of daily binge sitting at your desk : TED Radio Hour In this special series, host Manoush Zomorodi investigates the relationship between our technology and our bodies and asks: How are we physically adapting to meet the demands of the Information Age? Why do so many of us feel utterly drained after a day spent attached to our devices?

Part one kicks off with an exploration into how economic eras have shaped the human body in the past with author Vybarr Cregan-Reid. Then, Columbia University researcher and exercise physiologist Keith Diaz and Manoush discuss his findings and propose a challenge to listeners: Let's see if we can end this cycle of type, tap, collapse together.

Click here to find out more about the project:

Talk to us on Instagram @ManoushZ, and on Facebook @tedradiohour, or record a voice memo and email it to us at

So much sitting, looking at screens. Can we combat our sedentary lives?

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Hey there. Something happened just a few seconds ago that was extraordinary. You tapped or clicked a button to play this podcast.


ZOMORODI: You ever think about what powered your brain and body to make your finger do that? Well, it's the same thing that's powering the device you're listening to right now - electricity. They don't work exactly the same way, but our bodies and batteries have a lot in common, including a story that starts with a frog.


ZOMORODI: No, not that kind of story. This frog was dead.


ZOMORODI: In the late 1780s, all kinds of animals, including frogs, were being dissected in the lab of an Italian doctor named Luigi Galvani to study their anatomy. One day, something wacky happened.

LILLA VEKERDY: (Reading) When one of my assistants, by chance, lightly applied the point of a scalpel to the inner crural nerves of the frog, suddenly, all the muscles of the limbs were seen so to contract that they appeared to have fallen into violent, tonic convulsions.

ZOMORODI: This is Smithsonian curator Lilla Vekerdy reading Galvani's account of the dead frog kicking. Galvani believed he had made a major discovery.

VEKERDY: His hypothesis can be put in a two-word phrase - animal electricity.

ZOMORODI: He thought that the frog - that all animals - store electricity in their cells like a battery. He wrote up a report with lots of beautiful diagrams, printed just 10 copies and sent them off to scientist friends.

VEKERDY: So now we are looking at the title page of this publication from 1791, which was printed in Bologna. We see that...

ZOMORODI: I went to see one of Galvani's precious copies at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

It's almost like a magazine. I guess it's kind of like if we were to get, like, Nature magazine today - with publications?

VEKERDY: That's what it was...


VEKERDY: ...Originally as an article.

ZOMORODI: One of Galvani's pals, an Italian physicist named Alessandro Volta, read his article. And Volta thought Galvani's ideas about animal electricity - uh - they weren't quite right. Volta decided to test them.

ROGER SHERMAN: Volta was a more rigorous scientist than Galvani was. And at first...

ZOMORODI: Roger Sherman is the physics curator at the National Museum of American History.

SHERMAN: And Volta experimented very carefully and determined that what was making the legs twitch was a circuit between the frog and the scalpel, which was made of steel, and a different metal, like copper or brass. And when you have a circuit like that, it creates an electrical current.


ZOMORODI: So Volta figures out that, actually, you don't need a dead frog or any other animal. You just need to put different metals together, stick them in a conduit, like salt water, and presto - you can generate electricity. Volta calls his invention the voltaic pile.

SHERMAN: Volta's pile...

VEKERDY: There's a pile there, yes.

SHERMAN: ...To...

ZOMORODI: A stack of different discs of metal - this was basically the invention of the battery.

SHERMAN: Yes. And from that discovery comes our modern electric batteries and the whole idea of electricity as a current that continues to flow.

ZOMORODI: Volta as in voltage.

SHERMAN: The electrical unit volt was named after him, yes.

ZOMORODI: And Galvani as in galvanize?

SHERMAN: Yes, that's right.

ZOMORODI: It all comes back to the frog.


ZOMORODI: Electricity in the body works differently than what we use to keep the lights on. But Galvani wasn't totally wrong. It is what makes us move, think and feel. Electricity is the spark of life. As the poet Walt Whitman famously wrote, I sing the body electric. To feel the pulse of the world in your veins is to feel alive. But let's be real. These days, that vitality is waning. Our laptops and phones keep going. But for many of us, spending hours attached to our devices - well, it's depleting us. We feel stuck in a vicious cycle of type, tap, collapse.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I find myself sitting. I find myself staring at screens. I find myself trapped in that world. I'm not moving as much as I could or should.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My shoulders sometimes hurt sitting at a computer, hunched over. It doesn't seem like it's something that takes a lot of energy, but it absolutely does.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm not sleeping great. I'm so tense and tight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: My back aches. I tend to just continuously lean further and further and further into the computer screen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yeah, I think I feel the most in my eyes. And it almost feels like you're drunk or something. It's like it's such a dizzy, destructive - it's almost dissociative.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I'm just tired. And I take breaks, you know? I'll be like, hey, you need a break. So stop looking at the big screen. And now it's time to look at the little screen. What? That's not good.

ZOMORODI: Oh, man, I hear you. We are in a silent battle with our devices, and they are slowly, stealthily draining us.


ZOMORODI: But how can we maintain our energy when nearly 85% of jobs are mostly sedentary? And even when we're not working, so many of us spend the majority of our other time on screens, too. Well, I think it's time to find out, 'cause I'm not sure we can keep going like this.


ZOMORODI: I'm Manoush Zomorodi, host of the TED Radio Hour and a longtime tech journalist. And welcome to NPR's BODY ELECTRIC, a special six-part investigation into the relationship between our technology and our bodies and what we can do to make it better.


ZOMORODI: Over the last decade, I've been on a sort of quest to get people, including myself, to observe our behavior so that we can understand and change how we live with technology. And I found that the right combination of history, hardcore science and some self-experimentation can help us make real change, which is why this series has an interactive element, and we think it's actually a first for public radio and podcasts. We're partnering with Columbia University's Medical Center to do a massive study with you. Can we take their findings in the lab about getting off our butts and translate their recommendations into the real world? The only way we're going to know is if we try. So I'll explain more about what we're going to do and how you can sign up later in the show. It is pretty darn exciting. First, though, we need to understand how we got ourselves in this position. The big picture. When we come back, how our tools have shaped our anatomy through the ages. Stick with us.


ZOMORODI: Before we get into what's going on with your health and your technology right now, let's get some context, because since the beginning of humans, the work we did and the tools we used put stress on our bodies in bad and good ways.

VYBARR CREGAN-REID: So we have approximately 49% of the bone density than that of hunter-gatherers. The density of the upper arm bone in female agriculturalists was greater than Olympic rowers.

ZOMORODI: Wow. No amount of time at the gym is going to bring that back, right?

CREGAN-REID: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: This is Vybarr Cregan-Reid.

CREGAN-REID: And I am professor of English and environmental humanities at the University of Kent in the U.K. And my most recent book is "Primate Change: How The World We Made Is Remaking Us."

ZOMORODI: Vybarr is a little obsessed with how our health is impacted by how we spend our time, because as our work has morphed, our bodies have morphed in response.

CREGAN-REID: Yeah. We have the same DNA as we've always had, but the ecology of labor has changed a great deal. Now, what I mean by that is the variety of labor that a hunter-gatherer would do with their body meant their bodies were very, very different to ours.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. So let's start with the Paleolithic body.


CREGAN-REID: So if we go back hundreds of thousands of years, maybe a million years, you'll find that humans were - on the whole, they were pretty tall, pretty skinny, and humans kind of had the body that they needed to climb and to be able to move. The African savanna became a kind of - the perfect place in which the human body could flourish.

ZOMORODI: This was the longest period in human history. We were foraging, hunting and fishing for hundreds of thousands of years. But then, about 12,000 years ago...


CREGAN-REID: The biggest change that the human body undergoes is when we decide to settle. And we'd call this the agricultural revolution. And that's really a point at which access to water became easier. Access to food obviously became a lot easier because it was being farmed. And from that moment, what we can see is a pull towards efficiency, removing friction from your everyday life. The fact that your fruit tree is now in your garden as opposed to two miles away saves you a great deal of time. It also saves you calories. It means you don't need to find as much food if you're using less food.


ZOMORODI: Speeding things along - livestock, then horses, were domesticated. So a little less running around for us humans. And then, about 5,000 years ago, the chair was invented.


ZOMORODI: But for a long time, mostly just rich and powerful people owned chairs.

CREGAN-REID: And the reason that people didn't have them is they had no use of them. You know, if you're working on the land, you haven't really got much time to be sitting around.

ZOMORODI: If we look at literature, there's little mention of chairs in "The Iliad," "The Odyssey" or even the Bible. In the early 1600s, when Shakespeare wrote "King Lear," we see the word chair pop up just four times. But then, 150 years after that, the industrial age commenced, and so did the era of sitting. In the mid-1800s, Charles Dickens was, of course, writing up a storm, and chairs are mentioned all over the place in his manuscripts.

CREGAN-REID: If you look for the word chair in "Bleak House," there are 187 of them. So something had obviously hugely changed. And what had changed wasn't just the fact that it was possible for us to make more chairs, but it was the fact that there were just so many other ways for people to use them. And one of those ways is in their work. So in 1851, it's the first time in the history of our species that we start to find more people living in urban centers than are living in rural ones. And what it meant was their lives completely changed.

ZOMORODI: And, Vybarr, I guess we should also point out that simultaneously, just as chairs and more sedentary lifestyles were becoming common, people were also working in factories with horrible conditions - long hours, surrounded by really dangerous machines and chemicals.

CREGAN-REID: Very dangerous machines, very dangerous chemicals. And if you were injured at work, it was on you. There was no legal recourse. So it was incredibly dangerous. But also, what it meant was people were exhausted. They didn't have access to the variety of food that they had access to in rural communities. So people that worked in factories, they worked extremely long hours, but they were often working to buy the bread for the following day. So children were never outside. So they would walk a few hundred meters to work. Then they'd be inside a factory for 12 hours or 14 hours or longer. And then they'd go back home and then they'd sleep, and then they'd come back to their shift. So it meant that children shrank, humans shrank quite substantially. The average 16-year-old was at least a foot shorter than today.

ZOMORODI: As the industrial age progressed, we got electricity and gas, and life became more efficient. But many of our daily chores still required a lot of time and hard work - take cleaning a rug, for example.

CREGAN-REID: You would move the furniture from the rug. You'd then roll up the rug. You'd sling the rug over your shoulder. You'd sling the rug over the washing line. And then with a beater, you'd whack the bejesus out of the rug for a good 10 or 15 minutes. And then you'd then reverse the process. You'd roll back up the rug. You go back in the house, roll it back on the floor, straighten it out, then move the furniture back onto the rug. Now, to do that, you're talking about a calorie burn of about two to three hundred calories.

ZOMORODI: But then cleaning a rug got way easier with motorized appliances.

CREGAN-REID: You have the upright vacuum cleaner. Now, when I was a kid, these were quite common, and they weighed a ton. So even with an upright electric vacuum cleaner, you're still talking about a good sort of hundred calorie burn to do a rug. Now we have a robovac. You go beep, beep, beep on your phone, and the robovac leaves its home and it starts, and it goes to work cleaning the rug. And that's just one aspect of efficiency in modern life. And if you think about basically everything that you do is now a more efficient version, and we're now at the point where we don't really know what to do with ourselves. In the 1840s, it was definitely less than 1% of the working population was doing sedentary work. But if you fast-forward through to today, in the U.S., 85% of the population has a sedentary job.

ZOMORODI: I mean, clearly there are wonderful things that we have now - science, health care, medicine. We are living longer than ever. But it seems like you're pointing to a quiet problem that's not going away.

CREGAN-REID: Well, the quiet problem is things like - I sound kind of croaky today, and it's because I have asthma and hay fever and the tree pollen has decided to dump its load all in one afternoon, it seems. Hay fever doesn't exist until the 19th century. It literally does not exist until the 19th century. Most of the diseases that you can think of as - they are connected in one way or another with a diminution of movement or in a move away from rural environments to urban ones. And our bodies are always trying to be the best bodies that they can be for us. And modern life is really, really confusing them. So it's not so much that we're changing through evolution, but we're changing our bodies and what they're able to do through our habits.

We used to die because we couldn't find food, and now we die because we eat too much and we can't move. So even when we think about sedentary work from the 19th century and compare it to now, we're still not talking about the same things because of technology. So 40% of workers in the U.K. walk briskly for less than 10 minutes a month.


CREGAN-REID: And it's technology that has taken all of that movement from us.

ZOMORODI: This era we're living in has been labeled the Anthropocene, as human activity has had a bigger and bigger impact on the planet. And in your book, you say that we have Anthropocene bodies.

CREGAN-REID: Yeah. And the idea of an Anthropocene body is simply one which is being remade and reshaped by the Anthropocene environment. So the screens that we have in our hand, they're stopping us from going outside. And when we don't go outside, we're not around green spaces. We're not getting vitamin D. And that's really the damage that's being done.

ZOMORODI: That's why Vybarr Cregan-Reid. He's a professor of English and environmental humanities at the University of Kent. His latest book is "Primate Change: How The World We Made Is Remaking Us." In a minute, ideas for getting your Anthropocene body to use its tools better.


ZOMORODI: OK, so we just had a speed history lesson about how our bodies have changed through the ages, which brings us to now.

KEITH DIAZ: So some of the latest data suggests that the average adult spends 11 hours per day engaging in some form of technology. And what are we typically doing when we're consuming technology? Most likely not moving.

ZOMORODI: Keith Diaz is an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University's Medical Center.

DIAZ: Unfortunately, we live in a world that the default position is sitting. And we see movement now as often an inconvenience. Like, oh no, I left my charger upstairs for my phone. Oh, I got to go upstairs.

ZOMORODI: OK, maybe you're thinking, well, yeah, I sit around scrolling on my phone a lot, but at least I run, or I go to the gym in the morning. Keith says it's still a problem.

DIAZ: It's not enough to just check off that exercise box for your day and think that you're done, and you don't have to move the rest of the day. And there's been studies done in the Netherlands where they had people sit for three days straight. And then they had them come back and sit another three days but exercise for one hour in the morning. And what they found was that that one hour of exercise in the morning before they sat for the rest of the day was not enough to offset the health harms of sitting.

ZOMORODI: I know. It feels so unfair that even if you're working out, it's not enough. But I bet some of you are also thinking, whew, good thing I got that standing desk.

DIAZ: I'm not so sure. And unfortunately, my opinion is that the standing desk manufacturers have capitalized on the news headlines that sitting is the new smoking and helped convince many consumers that standing is a healthier alternative to sitting. But if you look at the scientific evidence, it is not convincing.

ZOMORODI: The evidence is convincing that long periods of sitting increase your risk for a lot of chronic diseases. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually, you may get...

DIAZ: Diabetes, many forms of cancer, heart disease, dementia. And sitting can also affect your mental health and your mood and ultimately decreases your longevity.

ZOMORODI: But so many of us do work that requires sitting at a computer a lot. We don't have a choice. So what do we do about it? How do we prevent those chronic health conditions? Or at the very least, how can we avoid feeling just gross, like I do, at the end of a long day of typing, zooming and tapping? Well, this is where Keith's findings come in.

DIAZ: If people are going to change their behaviors and tackle this sitting problem that we have, they need targets to shoot for. They need guidance on, what do I do? And so really, the goal of of my lab is to try to figure out, what's the least amount of movement that you can do to offset the harms of sitting? And so that's really what we're trying to do - is try to figure out how little we can get away with to offset the harms.

ZOMORODI: So one of the studies that you've done went kind of viral, as they say, over the last year. It was a pretty groundbreaking, landmark study. Can you describe it?

DIAZ: Yeah. So the straightforward answer is to offset the harms of sitting, you should move every half hour for five minutes. The main take-home message was that folks who moved every half hour for five minutes lowered their blood sugar spikes after eating by 60%.


DIAZ: And then it also lowered their blood pressure by 4 to 5 points.

ZOMORODI: Can I ask - those five-minute movement breaks - are people getting up and, like, doing jumping jacks? Or what are they doing?

DIAZ: This was light walking, 2.0 miles per hour on a treadmill.

ZOMORODI: Oh, not fast at all.

DIAZ: No, it's a stroll. We wanted something relatively light that everybody could do. And actually, those folks who moved every half hour - they had lower fatigue levels. They felt more energized and in general had a better mood. And why I think this is so important is, you know, we spend our time trying to convince the workforce and employers that, you should allow your employees to take breaks to move. And it seems counterintuitive to them, like, no, I need them working, I need them productive, that actually, a employee who's in a better mood, who's feeling less fatigued and feeling more energized is a more productive employee.

ZOMORODI: So I was reading about your work, and I love that there's a prescription. Like, do this and you're not going to kill yourself from sitting on your butt all day. So I reached out to you and I was like, what if we could invite our listeners to try out your findings in the wild, so to speak? And I was pleased that you were intrigued. What intrigued you, Keith?

DIAZ: Yeah. I mean, that's the thing with these, you know, lab-based studies, that they're not real world. I can give you a scientific answer of what you should do about it, but can anybody actually do it? If not, then it's pointless.


ZOMORODI: OK. So we, NPR, are partnering with you and Columbia to do a study with listeners, should they choose to join. Let's lay out the plan.

DIAZ: Yeah. So the plan is that we're going to ask you to sign up and commit to doing movement breaks.

ZOMORODI: For three weeks.

DIAZ: Yes. And we're going to try a couple of different doses. We want to see which ones work and which ones don't. We're going to send you some text messages over the course of the month and just check in and see if you're taking the breaks. If you are, we want to know when are you taking them? What's making you successful in taking the breaks? And if you're not, we just want to understand why not and understand what are your barriers? But we're also interested in seeing does this change how you feel? Does this change your mood?


ZOMORODI: Can we be more specific about what counts as an exercise snack?

DIAZ: Yeah. So first off, standing doesn't count. So we want you moving. And so our ask here is that you walk either in place, if that's all you can do. You can get a stepper and walk on a stepper or just walk, you know, throughout your workplace, throughout your home.

ZOMORODI: OK. So shuffling side-to-side is perfectly acceptable. I'm picturing what might be not acceptable is, like, you're on this Zoom call with your colleagues, and you're the one bopping up and down on the screen, But, like, that's what we're talking about here, right, Keith? We're talking about a mindset shift.

DIAZ: Yeah. Well, I mean, ultimately, what you're getting at is we have to - it's a culture change. There is this peer social element that we have to break if we're going to actually get this ingrained into everybody's lifestyles.

ZOMORODI: OK. Last question. What if it works? Like, what's your biggest fantasy about our experiment?

DIAZ: Yeah. If this works with our experiment, this is just fuel for us to then go and say, look, people can do this, and that's going to help us to start paving the way towards system-level change. And that's, for me, where I want to take this.


ZOMORODI: OK. So if you are ready to give this project a try and help out Keith Diaz and his team at Columbia University Medical Center, go to to find out more. But here's the thing - you only have until Sunday, October 8, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern to sign up because that is when the study kicks off. If you're listening after the deadline, that's OK. Try it on your own. Follow along.

Woo hoo. OK. I am so excited about this. I hope you are, too. Please don't be intimidated to take part. Recruit your coworkers, your friends, your family, your neighbors to try it with you. If walking isn't an option, Keith and his team will have alternative exercises, too. And remember, like, you can't fail at this. Whether or not you stick with moving every half hour or whatever you get assigned, all of it is vital information for these researchers. So do it for science, or just do it for yourself. Go to Please let us know about your experience. Email us. Send us a voice memo at You might hear yourself on the series. You can also talk to me on Instagram. I'm at @manoushz. And on Facebook, we're at @tedradiohour.


ZOMORODI: Next time on BODY ELECTRIC, the rise of the personal computer and the consideration that went into designing it for the human body. Not.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I have not seen any evidence that anyone did any kind of usability or human factors analysis in the design of these things, and it's absolutely obvious that they didn't.

ZOMORODI: That's Episode 2. Find it in your TED Radio Hour feed or at Plus subscribers, you get all these episodes ad-free and extra bonus episodes to enhance your BODY ELECTRIC experience.


ZOMORODI: OK. Phew. It's finally time for the credits. And you know what? Actually, I'm going to read them shuffling side-to-side because might as well start.

BODY ELECTRIC was produced by Katie Monteleone and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour with production support from Rachel Faulkner White. Original music by David Herman. Our audio engineer was Patrick Murray. This series was made possible by Anya Grundmann, Lauren Gonzalez, Lyndsey McKenna with help from Yolanda Sangweni, Beth Donovan, Irene Noguchi, Julia Carney and Fiona Geiran. Special thanks to Siobhan O'Connor for her brainpower, too. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you have been listening to BODY ELECTRIC from NPR.


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