The Importance of an Active Workspace

24 Sep

I, like many people I know, want to seek balance in my life between work, family, and personal health. And yet our culture and habits often keep the three separate.

The workplace is increasingly becoming a voracious consumer of our attention and time. And as it currently exists, the average workplace does little to promote time with our families, more sleep, or physical health.

The corporate world has latched onto the idea that people need to be imprisoned in their chairs all day long to be successful at their jobs. According to a number of experts in IP, sitting burns a lowly one (1!) calorie per hour. Interestingly, a body of science known as Inactivity Physiology (IP) increasingly is highlighting the idea that sitting for long periods of time is a severe hazard to your health and in many ways equivalent to smoking.

This graphic represents how a day looks for an active American working in a corporate setting [1].

“Are You An Exercising Couch Potato?”

This particular group is above average in that 3.5% of them exercises purposefully daily. But take away the exercise and their behavior looks more average. You may think that this group is healthier than people who don’t exercise. Unfortunately they’re victims of the reality that that if you sit for more than four hours per day you have almost the same risks for elevated metabolic disease and diabetes as people who don’t exercise at all.

There are definite barriers for most “workplace warriors” in today’s office culture. The perception is (with some truth) that it’s distracting to change into workout clothes and go somewhere to do physically demanding exercise. And it looks odd to drop and do 20 pushups throughout the day. Also, if a locker room with shower facilities isn’t available there is a discomfort with potentially not looking your best after a workout. Finally, a vast majority of people simply don’t want to work out at work.

This information might get companies thinking about encouraging exercise in the workplace for the sake of their employees’ health and productivity. There is a simple approach they can consider that would boost employees’ metabolism as well as disrupt triglyceride and fat formation to yield fairly dramatic results – both standing and working. As the graphic on the left shows, the simple act of standing will increase your fat utilization and plasma triglyceride uptake by more than three times that of sitting [2].

This is particularly true after a meal as sitting immediately afterwards spikes your triglycerides and reduces fat metabolism. Might there be something to the wisdom of our parents going for walks after dinner?

What To Do?

On the surface, I appear to be in very good physical condition. However, I definitely fell into the “Exercising Couch Potato” group. An intense burst for an hour each morning followed by a lot of sitting throughout my day and evening. In July, after reading a lot of the literature around the field of Inactivity Physiology, it got me thinking about how and why I sat a lot.

First, my environment isn’t set up to easily encourage activity and success in my job as CEO of my startup. Our workplace doesn’t have access to workout facilities and locker rooms. There is a gym across the street but it doesn’t resolve the sitting aspects. It is possible to periodically take walks but I literally work non-stop during the day and it really breaks up my flow to leave my desk and walk around. I usually end up not taking a lunch break and eat at my desk.

However, when I understood that the simple act of standing could potentially double or triple my caloric burn over that of sitting, a solution presented itself. What happened is one of my supremely creative coworkers asked about buying a standing desk. I thought that was a fine idea and said yes. He experimented with a few iterations and finally settled on a fairly inexpensive, effective approach that allowed him to still create his amazing software.

Inspired by this, shortly thereafter I got rid of my desk and installed a standing desk. I immediately noticed that I was physically tired at the end of the day. To me this was a good indicator that my metabolism had increased.

I did find that standing in the same place as the same level all day created some tightness in my lower back. I also wondered if more activity was possible. For example, a treadmill at my desk set to one mile per hour could potentially generate eight miles of walking per day and still allow me to easily type.  But finding the right treadmill would be time consuming and expensive. I decided to think of some simpler ways of adding more activity.

I brought in a rocker board as well as a small blue inflatable plastic exercise disc. The rocker board has been really successful. I rock back and forth on it all day long – both in a side-to-side format as well as front to back. I probably do the equivalent of four to six thousand steps per eight hour day on my board. I definitely can feel an effect from balancing as well. My oblique muscles in my core have tightened up. My balance and leg strength feel improved. My hip flexors and calves are less tight. I am pleasantly physically tired at the end of the day, but less so every day as my physical conditioning improves.

I decided to push things a bit and ordered a 40 lb. weighted vest. I have been experimenting with wearing this vest two to four hours every day. Unsurprisingly, this feels like it has raised the stakes metabolically. If I wear this more than four hours per day I am definitely tired, and my feet are tired if I stand on a hard surface. I’ve found that the inflatable blue disc is nice to stand on and relieves most of the pressure on my feet.

In a month and a half, I have noticed that I am in better physical shape. In my formal gym workouts I am able to do a lot more and I am stronger.

As far as work production, I haven’t noticed any kind of dropoff in my productivity. I also have less anxiety about missing a workout as I know that I will be active at work anyway.

Mentally, I’ve had a big shift. As a manager, it’s changed my ideas of what’s possible within the workplace. This idea that you can segregate movement from workplace needs is misguided. For most of our human history, we’ve gotten a lot done on our feet.

Why can’t we design away the current version of the cubical and incorporate more movement and activity? The corporate environment can be redesigned to create dozens of little points of small physical activity during the day. It has me thinking about what changes I can provide to my work force to give them more opportunities to be physically active and healthier when they are working. In a corporate world where the average healthcare costs per employee are $10,000 per year and increasing at a double-digit rate, creating a work environment where physical work and accomplishing your tasks coexist seems like an idea whose time has come.


[1] Marc Hamilton et al. Too Little Exercise and Too Much Sitting: Inactivity Physiology and the Need for New Recommendations on Sedentary Behavior. Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports, 2008

[2] Ibid. Marc Hamilton, PhD.

Personal System Biology: We Can Only Change What We Know

7 Jun

Our bodies are complex biological systems that are influenced by the foods we eat, the places we grew up, and the people and the genomes that made us. Not everyone will get identical benefits from eating the same diet, and we all deal with different exposures.

So how do we measure what is good for our specific personal biology?

Personal system biology is essentially the sum of nutrition + exposure/toxins  + lifestyle + how those inputs affect our bodies through our biological and genetic makeups. Because we all process nutrition, toxins, and stress differently, a one-size-fits-all answer will not benefit us completely. Even a diet that is beneficial for some may be deleterious to others.

With new diagnostic technology we can collect a baseline, add interventions, and measure again in order to understand our personal system biology better. By doing so, we gain leverage against disease by observing the metabolites  (chemical outputs) that are produced in our bodies, allowing us to make informed behavior changes to realize our personal best outcomes.

Imagine a personal database of your many biomarkers. Biomarkers are indicators of a biological state, like iron in blood. We can measure and track those and watch them change over the years as we change our habits. Through this measurement loop we can begin to see what effective changes we can make for ourselves, avoid disease, and take control of our health, performance and longevity.

Many of us are familiar with tracking nutrition and lifestyle choices. A few other important things to track for wellness include exposome, genome, and metabolome:

Exposome: Our bodies are not made of Teflon. What we do and eat, as well as the environments we expose ourselves to, can decorate our tissues like flies on a windshield. Many of these environmental factors can be measured by the marks they leave behind: the exposome. Diagnostics can now assess the exposures that affect our health from before birth to the present. The chemicals in our environment and our habits have enormous influence on our personal system biology.

An October 2010 Scientific American article on sequencing the exposome states that “although genetics can predispose a person to many ills, more than half of disease risks — and possibly as much as 90 percent — likely stem from environmental factors, according to recent epidemiological research.”

Genome: In modern molecular biology and genetics, the genome represents the complete version of an organism’s hereditary information. It was thought for many years that the “hand you were dealt” by your ancestors pretty much dictated your health destiny. But in the past decade that idea has begun to change slightly. For example, many genes can be “turned on” or “turned off” depending on different biological inputs. It turns out that what you start with can be optimized or improved upon if you learn how your own unique system works.

Metabolome: The metabolome is the complete set of small-molecule metabolites that is the result of our body’s metabolic function — basically, the crime scene. By looking at what happens at the level of our body’s microprocesses, we can tell a lot about what we should do to keep ourselves healthy and whether what we have changed is guiding us in the right direction.

In January 2007 scientists at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary finished a draft of the human metabolome database cataloging and characterizing 2,500 metabolites, 1,200 drugs or active chemicals and 3,500 food components that can be found in the human body. The Human Metabolome Database now contains more than 7,900 known metabolites and is continuing to grow. As we continue to learn more about how these markers are affected by our personal system biology, our personal wellness abilities will also increase.

As an athlete, businessperson and parent, this is the method I use to stay engaged with my own system biology:

  • Test: Get lab work done to find out more about toxicity levels, genes, blood chemistry, etc. Even tracking diet, physical activity, and stress levels can add clarity.
  • Integrative and functional medicine: Employ practitioners who are empowering and know how to work collaboratively with other practitioners. Engaging a variety of skills and voices is more valuable than relying on one source.
  • Research: Make interactions with practitioners as rich and informed as possible. Wikipedia and WebMD continue to be great sources.
  • Supplements: Take healthy food and supplements. Aside from supporting nutritional needs, certain nutrients are natural detoxifiers for the chemicals encountered in day-to-day living. They can also correct deficiencies.
  • Retest: Get more lab work done. After a benchmark has been established, measure how new choices improve overall wellness. As I look at more granular data that is responsive to small changes in my diet and lifestyle, I want to see my results more often to better inform and reinforce my personal wellness program.

Adopting any program of diet, supplementation, pharmacy and detoxification all begins with measurement. I’m excited about developments in this space and look forward to your feedback and questions.

Thanks to Dr. Bruce German for his assistance around the topics of metabolomics and nutrition.

A Look at Athletic Life & Its Many (Hard-Earned) Benefits

1 Jun

I am a lifelong athlete. I wouldn’t say I am a “natural,” but I consider myself athletic. How do I define athleticism? Fundamentally, it is the attitude of being inspired by the potential of human movement to improve your physical health, as well as in activity’s ability to enable mind/body learning and goal achievement. Another way to consider this is that every movement-related activity is an opportunity to understand how your body and mind function in a way that is different than eating, sleeping and working. Each new sport is a complex integration where you are learning the rules and then applying them to specific movements.

At a basic level, most sports are a practice of efficiency and economy of movement to generate the most output. With few exceptions (cross training, functional movement training), every sport is a very specialized set of activities. Your body is an adaptable machine, and over time it internalizes the movements required of a particular sport. Simultaneously, the plasticity of your body molds and develops it around the movements inherent in a sport.

The downside of this is that same increasing efficiency through specialization contributes to the creation of imbalances in your physical machine. Witness the various injuries related to each activity: “tennis elbow,” baseball’s “Tommy John surgery,” ACLs in skiing, and many others.

Through my nearly 50 years of athletic life, I have gone through bursts of starting, learning, and then practicing many sports and activities at a high level. Even now I have a practice of making a deep dive into a new activity for three months every 12 to 18 months to understand how it works and explore whether it’s something I want to add to my set of preferred activities. Continue reading

Cancer, Your Health & the Environment

28 Feb

Cancer Cells

Last weekend I was reviewing the President’s Cancer Panel publication “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk.” It is a long report (240 pages) but well worth reviewing given the effect the environment has on personal health.

According to the report, approximately 41% of the U.S. population will be diagnosed with cancer at some point of their lives and 21% (or half) will die from it. The biggest single influence is increasingly seen as coming from exogenous factors (outside the body).

These broadly affect health in the following areas:

  • Hormone Production and Function
  • Systemic Inflammation
  • DNA Damage
  • Gene Suppression or Overexpression

The report states: Continue reading

Engineers Do Better in Startups

16 Feb

Photo By Dierken

I actually agree with a lot of what Bindu says. I started a fairly successful Web 1.0 company in the 1990’s. At the time we had to hand roll even the most basic infrastructure to get the service up and running. Waterfall development was the rule. It was necessary to raise a lot more money because even basic services like Paychex, outsourced HR, Hosting, etc… were not available across a spectrum of what a functional company needs.

We still had a very successful exit as investors/employees received a 27x’s money return. Really hard difficult work though putting an entire company together.

Much different today. I recently came back and decided to do another web startup. We funded in 2010. It has been nothing short of mind boggling to see the breadth of technology and business services available. What is more, the variety of venture funds available that actually service early stage and seed companies is equally mind blowing. The talent pools are diverse and incredibly smart. Also, because there are so many services and outsourced resources available, it isn’t necessary to have a huge employment base. This means less dilution to the company equity structure. This is hugely in favor of investors and employees.

While the pay and job security are perceived as being superior with a large existing company like a Google, Facebook, or even Groupon, in reality there are several downsides: (keep reading >>)

Thinking About Your Stock Options

24 Jan
Recently, a recruiter posted the following on the SF Ruby on Rails Meetup Board:

“Hello everyone, For those of you who were not at the meet up the other night, I wanted to let you know that I am currently looking for Ruby on Rails developers for the fastest growing tech company in history! The company just turned down a multi-billion dollar offer and they are expected to go public this year. Now is a perfect opportunity to join a great company and work alongside some of the best engineering and entrepreneurial minds in the Silicon Valley. If anyone is interested in hearing more feel free to call or email me. Referral’s are appreciated.”

A discussion about startup equity ensued. I decided to respond. Here is my edited reply:

WellnessFX is Hiring!

15 Dec

My new company WellnessFX is off the ground!

Our mission is to revolutionize human health by providing a web-based platform that leverages cutting edge diagnostics to deliver personalized nutritional and lifestyle recommendations to optimize individual health.

I couldn’t be more excited. I fell in love with health technology while building Sapient in the 90’s, which became the WebMD platform that now serves over 20M people. Now, I’m ready tackle a web platform that will leverage innovations in personalized biometrics, nutrition, and genomics to empower people with more decision-relevant information about their health than ever before.

What is biometrics tracking? Let’s take a look…

My Cardiovascular Results: Jim Kean

17 Sep

I’ve always been interested in answering the question: “how healthy am I?”

Two years ago, I began a process of assembling an extensive diagnostic panel that would highlight the various functional areas of my body in a “system biology” approach to my health. My first topic of choice: cardiovascular health. Here’s what I learned:

Mount Defiance

8 Sep

Quenching thirst.