Stand Up Guy

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: People Issue: October 2014
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Author, obesity expert and inventor James Levine wants you to stand up for your life.

There sure are a lot of interesting James Levines out there, you think as you Google the name. One of them invented the treadmill desk. Another wrote a pair of harrowing Third World crime novels, one from the perspective of a sex-trafficked teen in India, the other about a young Kenyan drug runner. Another pioneered the field of “inactivity studies” before co-directing Arizona State University and Mayo Clinic’s Obesity Solutions collaboration. Another was kidnapped in India. And then you realize it’s all the same man, and you wonder what on earth you’ve been doing with your time.


The answer is probably “sitting.” The solution is Dr. James Levine’s mantra, the title of his recently released book, and the link that connects his wide-ranging accomplishments: Get Up. Get up physically. Get up mentally and spiritually. And help others get up, too.

If you want to talk with Levine, wear walking shoes. At Obesity Solutions, where every office has a treadmill desk, the sight of Levine in a chair is as rare as a glimpse of Sasquatch. He will likely take you to ASU’s Secret Garden to walk through the entire meeting. Never mind that it’s 2 p.m. in August. “If we can do it,” he says, “anyone can.”

Levine has been obsessed with movement since he was a 9-year-old in London, setting his alarm to get up every single hour, every night for two years. Why? To trace the movements of his pet snails. “Unfortunately, to this day, I have this habit of waking up almost every hour of the night,” Levine muses. “Perhaps I’m yearning for more snails.”

Perambulating around the garden, he points out the swaying of a tree. “If you think about it, our lives are a type of movement, in the same way you see the tree rustling, because we have great days – the forward flow. But then we all have quiet days when everything’s still. And sometimes we have backward days... That’s horribly profound for somebody who likes The Simpsons.”

Levine counts himself lucky that his obsession is also his job. While attending London’s Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, he earned a scholarship from Cambridge University to build devices that measure movement. He was then recruited by Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, where for 20 years, he conducted groundbreaking research in obesity and inactivity.

Levine and his team investigated why 60 percent of the population is prone to excess weight, while the minority remains slim. They enlisted regular people with office jobs and “kitted them out with magic underwear that measured all their movements,” he explains. Those prone to obesity typically sat 2 1/4 hours more each day than lean people. The solution seemed simple: Exercise two hours a day. But his patients argued that hitting the gym was inconvenient, time-consuming, costly and embarrassing.

Then the research uncovered something more troubling: Exercising for an hour or two does not offset the harm of “the sitting disease.” Excess sitting is associated with 34 negative conditions, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, joint problems, low mood and cognitive decline. “All of a sudden, the sitting revolution wasn’t just relevant to people battling excess body weight,” Levine says. “It became relevant to absolutely everybody.”

Including Levine, who’d gained 35 pounds. He too was “chair sentenced” at work, coming home with only enough energy to slide his rear end from the dining room chair to the couch. “The further into middle age I went, the deeper the impression of my buttocks in the sofa,” he says. So when data revealed his chair was killing him, “all of a sudden I was walking two to three hours a day on a treadmill desk that we’d cobbled together from a broken patient table and a disused Sears treadmill.”    

More than 60,000 of his inventions have been sold, but as with most of his business associations, Levine doesn’t see a penny. He basically comes up with the ideas and partners with businesses and gives them free advice. “The more people I can encourage to build more quality businesses to get people more active serves the greater mission, [which] is my caucus – the 85 percent of people who need our help, who are too inactive, who are chair sentenced.”

Levine says his underlying motivation is to give a voice to the voiceless, whether that’s the millions of office workers who can’t take a stand against chairdom, or the millions of impoverished people worldwide.

Which is why he traveled to Africa’s Ivory Coast with the United Nations to study how societal structures affect individuals’ movement. Then to Delhi, India, where he was kidnapped two weeks after an American tourist was abducted and murdered. Levine endured five days in a dark cell before being rescued by an Indian SWAT team. Then he went straight to Mumbai to measure the activity levels of the poor. Walking along the “Street of Cages,” where sex-trafficked children work out of concrete cells, Levine saw a 15-year-old girl standing against her cage writing in a blue notebook. He couldn’t reconcile a literate girl being sold into this horrific existence. Back in the U.S., he says, “I would wake up at like 2, 3 in the morning, and I would see her looking down. She absolutely haunted me.”

He turned her into the heroine of his first novel, The Blue Notebook (Spiegel & Grau, 2010). Published in more than 35 countries, the book sparked policy changes worldwide, including protection acts for women, and rescue and reintegration programs for sex-trafficked children.

Next, Levine worked on a slum-mapping project in Nairobi, Kenya, where he encountered a boy dashing through an alley clutching packets of drugs. The boy’s sharp eyes and adaptability struck Levine, so he turned him into the protagonist of his next novel, Bingo’s Run. The book, which debuted this year, challenges assumptions about the poor. “People in poverty just don’t have money,” he says, “but they’re just as creative and innovative as those of us who are blessed with having loads of stuff.” Levine believes that if people invested in the rich resources of humanity, impoverished people too could finally “get up.”

To Levine, the “get up” gospel is not about obesity or inactivity, it’s about ending our sense of helplessness. We can feel powerless to solve the world’s problems, he says. “But this you can solve. Your sedentariness – of body, of spirit, of mind, of soul – you can solve it today. Get up and take a stand for yourself and believe that everyone else can do the same, because if everybody did do that, then literally the world changes.”

Get Up, Stand Up
Most people spend 10 to 15 hours a day sitting.

>>   Standing burns three times as many calories per hour as sitting. When you sit all day, the activity levels of the enzyme that breaks down fat in your bloodstream drop by 50 percent.

>>   Every hour you sit and watch TV shaves 21.8 minutes off your life expectancy.

>>   Aim for 10 minutes of NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis – every hour. That could include pacing during a phone call, tidying the house, stretching, walking to the water cooler, folding laundry.

>>   NEAT-ify your life: Walk to a coworker’s office instead of emailing. Stroll to a cafe or park at lunch instead of eating at your desk; you’ll be more productive. Hold walking meetings. Park in the farthest parking lot. Use a standing desk. Amble at 1 mph on a treadmill while you read or email.

Sources: “Move A Little, Lose A Lot” by James Levine; Mayo Clinic; British Journal of Sports Medicine