Are you sitting comfortably?

Storytime for children

When I was a child, the BBC Home Service had a radio programme called “Listen with mother”. It was storytime for youngsters. Every day, the programme began with “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”

The programme ran from the early 1960s until 1982 when it was renamed “Listening Corner”, which finally ended its broadcasts in 1990. What it did, though, was to ensure that generations of children got used to the notion that sitting down was a good thing.

It isn’t. We were lied to.

I sit down far too much. My guess is, so too do you. Indeed, I was listening to the radio the other day when the sports reporter – yes, a sports reporter – admitted that he had put on a stone and a half in weight since the first lockdown of a year ago. He blamed it on sitting around too much.

However, I will not waste your time on a Saturday morning criticising you for your lack of fitness or your expanding waistline. That’s because there is another problem with all this sitting around. It is affecting your brain. In particular, it is affecting your online behaviour.

These days you spend much of your working time online. That requires lots of sitting in front of computer screens, hunched over a desk. People are spending more time like this than they were a year ago. I would hazard a guess that you know people who have said that they are spending more hours working now than they ever did before. Then, in the next breath, they tell you that they appear to be achieving less.

You may be in a similar situation. Indeed, millions of people appear to be working longer hours since Coronavirus first changed our lifestyles. However, weirdly, people are being less productive and not able to get as much done.

New research now explains why this is the case. A study at the University of Illinois looking at the link between sedentary behaviour and obesity found an interesting “twist”. The researchers discovered that when you are sitting comfortably for a while, your ability to deal with distractions is reduced.

Hang on a minute….! Sitting down all day, thanks to a COVID lockdown, therefore means that you will be more distracted by the wonders of the online world. This will obviously reduce your ability to get on with your work.

People are achieving less but working longer hours in lockdown. That is probably because they are continually facing distractions and cannot deal with them due to sitting down.

The Illinois researchers are interested in finding out how much activity is needed between bouts of sitting to restore the cognitive function of being able to concentrate. I think I can save them the time and money on doing that research. My guess is that in line with studies of memory, attention and comprehension when people take a break from their desk every 15 minutes, they’ll be able to avoid being distracted.

There is consistent research showing, for instance, that students learn more when they do it in bursts of 15-minute sessions. Other studies demonstrate that we comprehend more of what we read when we concentrate on chunks of material that take around a quarter of an hour to read.

The fitness gurus will tell you that standing up from your desk once every 15 minutes will help your health. Plus, mental health experts will explain that a break every 15 minutes and then is good for your mind. So, 15 minutes sounds like it has a ringing endorsement from many areas.

So, now you can add “avoiding distractions” to the list of reasons why you shouldn’t sit comfortably for too long and take a break every quarter of an hour.

If you want to be productive online this morning, then right after reading this, the best thing you can do is stand up and take a break. Come back to your computer, do some work for 15 minutes and then take another break. You will discover that you are not as distracted as you were before and that you will get your work done more quickly, even though you are not sat at your computer for as long as you have been doing.

Therefore, I think it is time to reword that BBC phrase from “Listen with mother”. It should be “Are you sitting comfortably? Then get up and move.”

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