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Can we combat our sedentary lives? New podcast series 'Body Electric' investigates

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Have you ever thought about how we got into this situation where most of us are typing, tapping or scrolling on screens much of the day? Well, NPR's special series Body Electric is investigating our relationship between our technology and our bodies. And its host, Manoush Zomorodi of the TED Radio Hour, is here. So last week, you asked folks to sign up to be part of a study that you're doing with Columbia University Medical Center. Give us an update on the project that you're doing with listeners.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: OK. So A, we are partnering with researchers at Columbia who have found that the minimum amount of movement we need to offset the harms of our sedentary, screen-filled lives is strolling for five minutes every half hour. But, you know, it's one thing to make this finding in the lab, can we actually do this in the real world? So we're doing a crowdsourced study, and tens of thousands of people have signed up to give it a try. This week, they'll be collecting baseline data. Next week, they will try adding these movement snacks to their day.

MARTÍNEZ: So now, another part of the series is looking at how our bodies are adapting to all our tech use and how we got to this point where nearly 85% of our jobs are sedentary and people spend the majority of their time when they're not sleeping looking at a screen.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. So in our first two episodes, we investigated how economies have shaped the human body over the ages. And I talked to Vybarr Cregan-Reid. He's a professor of environmental humanities at the University of Kent in the U.K. And he says that human characteristics have changed because of what we do all day.

VYBARR CREGAN-REID: The density of the upper arm bone in female hunter-gatherers was greater than Olympic rowers.

ZOMORODI: So A, if I had time-traveled from back then, I would definitely beat you at arm wrestling.

MARTÍNEZ: Sorry to break it to you, but beating me at anything is not a high bar of achievement.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTÍNEZ: It really isn't.

ZOMORODI: OK, I could be anyone, then, at arm wrestling. So anatomically modern humans have been around for about 300,000 years. But, A, it really wasn't until about 5,000 years ago that the chair was invented.

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: So it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution that most workers could sit. And then, in the 1930s, white collar work starts. And that is when we get humans sitting for a living. Later, then, into the 1970s and '80s, that's when the computer comes into the office, and then into our homes. And that's when we start contorting our bodies to suit this new tool. And I spoke to Laine Nooney, a computer and video game historian at New York University.

LAINE NOONEY: I think a lot of us don't realize how much pain we live in because of our interactions with computing. So there's the extended sitting. There's the use of the keyboard, which causes all sorts of strain in the wrists, the hands, the fingers, the elbows. There's the posture of sitting, which has the back, the shoulders, the neck. And then you're also maintaining a very specific head posture by looking at the screen.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so all that sounds really familiar.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: What's your tip this week about trying to feel better?

ZOMORODI: Yeah, so as you go about the next week, just kind of notice how long you sit between breaks. One hour, three hours, until your left leg falls asleep - what are your habits? And then next week, we'll talk about how to get movement into your day.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Manoush Zomorodi, host of NPR's TED Radio Hour and a special series, Body Electric. Catch new episodes every Tuesday in the TED Radio Hour podcast feed or at npr.org/bodyelectric.

Manoush, thank you very much.

ZOMORODI: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Manoush Zomorodi
Manoush Zomorodi is the host of TED Radio Hour. She is a journalist, podcaster and media entrepreneur, and her work reflects her passion for investigating how technology and business are transforming humanity.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.