Sitting Smoking Sleeping (6/18/13)
Going to Extremes
Human beings love to test limits. For many it’s fun to drive a car. And if driving is fun, it’s also fun to simultaneously talk on the phone, eat a granola bar, read our emails, dictate a letter and watch TV.
Except when we run someone over. Or slam into rear of a Porsche.
American students – high school and college – particularly enjoy going to extremes. It’s fun to test your body, see just how far you can really go.
Why sleep when you can text and sext? Why run around a track like a robot or march through urban jungles when you can you can devour energy in a can, little jiggers stuffed with amino acids and cool supplements and lots of caffeine that make you wake up for class just like that!
Why not? Because human bodies are not built that way. And when you turn your body into a machine, it breaks down.
Which is what kids all over the world are discovering. Which brings us to another interesting cultural extreme – South Korea.
Sleeping Less, Smoking More
South Korea is a wonderful place replete with magical landscapes, gorgeous temples and unbearable tensions. The rock loving son of the Supreme Deity of the Planet lives just a little bit to the north. He tries daily to make more effective nuclear weapons and gleefully describes plans to immolate Seoul. As the yen declines the economic situation gets tougher. The traditional prescribed way out – work harder.
If you’re a student that means studying – night and day. The average “college bound” high schooler goes to school, then cram school, then studies into the night. Research shows the “average” student sleeping four and half hours on weekday nights and 13 hours on the weekends. If you pass the university exams, especially for the top ranked national universities, your future is supposedly assured. Everybody else will have a rougher time.
When a Korean Broadcasting Service showed up in my office I asked why they had come all thi way. The answer “Koreans don’t know how to rest.”
So what’s does mass sleeplessness do to people?
Sleeping Korean Style
The national meeting of the Association of Professional Sleep Societies sounds a severely soporific forum for sleep inducing research. It’s not. Sleep research is exciting precisely because it shows people how the body regrows and reformulates, making it far easier to be alert, vital and alive – as well as long lived. Predictably, some South Koreans will arrive each year describing the forms of rest on the southern end of their peninsula.
This year was no different. Two papers stood out:
1. Kids who sleep less smoke more.
2. As the exam times come closer, kids sleep less and less and less.
And then there are the associated outcomes. Videogaming is so prevalent in Korea that the government has resorted to turning off student internet accounts post midnight in order to “force” sleep. Press accounts appear periodically of young men who die while engaged in marathon gaming sessions, or the young couple so enthralled by child raising internet games that their own infant died.
Why Would Sleeplessness Lead to Smoking?
Bodies need rest like food. If they don’t get it they don’t function.
But stimulants can keep people going. In many countries the preferred food-drug is caffeine or similar alkaloids – delivered in coffee, tea, or “energy” drinks.
Nicotine is also a powerful stimulant. As sleeplessness also leads to weight gain and nicotine to weight loss or stabilization, kids everywhere have figured out that smoking can keep them awake longer – and perhaps weighing less. The recent increase in smoking among teenagers has many causes, but stimulation and weight loss are big ones. It’s another reason European regulators regard electronic cigarettes skeptically. I and others think e-cigarettes can provide a useful way station for smokers quitting smoking, but hooking teenagers on vaporized nicotine will only lead to nasty later deaths.
Why Do People Say Sitting is the New Smoking?
There are bunches of recent reports that sitting more means living less. The sitting can be while studying, driving a car, watching TV or answering telemarketers calls – it’s unclear whether certain activities are more unhealthy than others.
Yet preliminary data argues that glucose metabolism is messed up by sitting – even for rather short periods. Still, on an individual basis sitting does not yet approach the ability of cigarettes to maim and kill people.
What Is To Be Done?
Study after study has shown better grades and better exam scores when kids get more rest. The results are consistent each time.
Except kids don’t know this. And those who do may not believe. Adolescents tell me if “I’m up all night I’m using more energy, right? How can that make me gain weight?”
Because it does. Because bodies have special rhythms, as well as an operating manual that includes certain amounts of rest and food at certain times. And we need to move around.
Humans are walking machines. We’re built to eat, move, rest. That’s what evolution has provided.
So we need to use our great biological luck. If people “must” use a computer monitor or watch TV, they can do it standing, or using a stepper or exercise machine. And when the night comes people should contemplate the wonders of rest, where they rebuild their nerve cells, streamline their muscle groups, sprout beautiful new skin and reformat the immune system so the next new cold or bird flu or hepatitis virus does not lay them low.
So you’ll want to rest before sleep. Use the body the way it’s built. Sleep and wake up alive and conscious.
It really is more fun that way.
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