It seems that one of the reasons we in the West live longer but with the extra years blighted by ill-health is that we spend way too much time on our backsides. A programme on Radio 4 (presenter Chris Bowlby) interviews people who sit for 20 hours a day – not unusual for office workers who commute. This amount of sitting takes years off our healthy life expectancy by, eg, interfering with metabolism and compressing the kidneys. Workplace designers are devising modifications like desks that rise to standing height. Another solution is individuals’ awareness. Think: walk. Bowlby conducts an interview on the move, observing the side effect of the leveling off of the usual interviewer-interviewee relationship. If office desks were replaced by mobile meetings, he says, office politics would be transformed.
As the kitchen is a place in which we tend to work standing up, I view the central island as key for healthy living. When standing at it – chopping, reading a recipe, kneading dough – we exercise the thighs and glutes at the same time. Clearly this does not replace more vigorous workouts but it’s a start and a good one. So instead of watching MasterChef, cook real food in a decently designed environment. To make walking around our kitchens smoother we use curved shapes on any central island or peninsula; to encourage standing up we transform the breakfast bar to a counter that runs the entire length of the island. This can be used a servery, drinks bar, for plating and limited cooking activity or even eating standing up. Our family often does this at lunchtimes where we also serve ourselves from the multi-purpose counter. ‘Active ergonomics’ is a phrase I use for more thorough and dispersed use of the entire kitchen involving sustained movement throughout the space. By carrying out functions facing into the room cooking is turned into a sociable process that gives everyone a chance to participate in preparing a meal, with far less likelihood of one person being left with all the work. Dedicated or carefully minimized work surfaces make the planning of tasks more effective and also generate movement around the kitchen.
Walking and standing produce higher levels of happiness as well as improved health. Bowlby speaks to the BBC presenter Trevor Nelson who notes that listeners unknowingly benefit from his new work habit of standing instead of sitting on the job: ‘standing gives me more energy when I talk on air’, he says. It is also very true that our thinking powers are boosted by walking, going for a walk being the ideal way to unblock the mind and come home inspired. Nietzsche even says, ‘Only ideas won by walking have any value’. I was reminded of this reading an amusing interview in the weekend’s Observer by Carole Cadwalladr. In this she meets, Frédéric Gros, a French philosopher with a special, unpretentious take on the relationship between walking and thought. I bought his new book, A Philosophy of Walking, online.