Health and Old Baking Sheets July 25 2014

Something happens to baking sheets over time, and it’s not pretty. 

Have you ever bought a brand new baking sheet? Something about seeing that soft, slippery metal makes you think: “This time will be different.” You vow to take care of it. This time, you won’t let it turn gross like the others before it. But as sure as the river runs, your baking sheet turns stained and sooty, right before your very eyes. 

When it finally starts to look like an old coal miner’s helmet, you realize it’s over and you’ve lost. 

The sense of optimism you felt when you first laid hands on your brand new baking sheet was trampled by the realities of modern life. Sadly, many people seem to have the same glowing sense of optimism when they think about their health. They see people around them, stained and sooty from years of sedentary office work, and they think that they’re somehow immune. In the worst-case scenario, an office worker’s health is alot like a baking sheet. 

In the beginning, when the baking sheet is first unwrapped and when the worker gets his first office job, they’re both surprisingly resilient. The worker’s body has perfect range of motion, respectable blood pressure and good muscle tone. Similarly, the baking sheet has a sparkling cooking surface that seems to stay bright and cheerful, no matter what. Their normal routines aren’t overly healthy, but they seem to be able to bounce right back without any long-term effects. A week of 12-hour days in the desk chair is not a problem for the office worker, nor is that burned piece of salmon a problem for the cooking sheet. With a little warm water, the crusty residue from the salmon and oil seem to wash away, while the young office worker’s body bounces right back with a good night’s sleep. 

After some time, things start to get rocky for both the office worker and the baking sheet. After multiple messy meals, the sheet’s protective coating seems to be wearing away slowly. Foods that used to slide right off now seem to need a little scrape. At first glance, the sheet still seems to have its original lustre, but if you look closely enough, you can start to see the shadows of meals past. The body of the office dweller also seems to have lost the protective coating. Over the last few months of sedentary living, his body has begun to adapt to his new inactive lifestyle. The tendons and muscles of his upper body have adapted to make his sitting and slouching easier and more comfortable. His body has learned to slow the metabolism because the large muscle groups in his legs, back and butt are dormant for the majority of the day. With a lower metabolism, his body burns far less energy. The cells in his idle muscles send a signal to the pancreas to keep the insulin a-flowing, which signals his body to store more energy as fat, and it places him at a higher risk for obesity and diabetes. His blood begins to flow slowly, without the help of his muscles to pump it around, so fatty acids can more easily clog his pipes, leading to heart disease. His body certainly doesn’t look much different than it did before, but his insides are operating distinctly differently. 

The day of reckoning eventually comes in both cases. The sedentary office worker notices some weight gain, fatigue or sluggishness, while the baking sheet starts to show some pretty hefty staining and patches of roughness. When the wheels fall off, the first instinct in both cases is to think: “I can fix this!” For the office worker, the remedy is to introduce an exercise plan, while the baking sheet gets a good old fashion scrubbing. In both cases, the added elbow grease is rarely effective in fixing the problem. An hour of exercise each day is wonderful, but it doesn’t fend off the toxic effects of over-sitting, nor does the extra scrubbing remove any of the deep, caked-on yuck that is now plainly visible on the once beautiful baking sheet.

Things get much worse, as some destructive patterns begin to emerge. As more gunk builds up on the baking sheet, more food sticks to it, gets burned on, and then leads to thicker, more resistant gunk. The same negative pattern ensures that the office worker continues to dig himself a deeper hole of ill-health. The worker is now more fatigued, weaker, fatter and more sluggish than he’s ever been before, his low productivity and foggy mind mean that he needs to work even longer and harder to perform his job duties. The worker’s new normal makes it much harder—consequently much less likely—that he will start making the changes he needs to regain his health. He becomes even more sedentary. 

The analogy falls apart when the old, rusty baking sheet gets replaced with a new one. Unfortunately, the worker is stuck with his body and the whole he’s dug for himself. Unlike the baking sheet, the body can be recovered. The way that he can get out of this poor health spiral is the exact same way that he should have avoided it in the first place, with consistent activity and movement. 

If the worker begins to fire up his large muscle groups consistently throughout the day, he will gradually be able to increase his metabolism. His pancreas will eventually chill out with all the insulin and his blood should start to zip around his body, as it should. As he begins to consistently stand and walk during the day, his muscles and tendons will gradually adapt to his more active and upright state. Over time, he’ll convince his body that he’s an active person again. 

To avoid becoming an old crusty baking sheet, figure out how to integrate as much activity as possible during your day, including stiff like: walking, standing, stair climbing, lunges, air squats, pushups, etc. Sitting idly at a desk for 45-60 minutes will simply not do. Standing desks are wonderful because they give you the opportunity to add a bunch of standing to your day, but they also give you the freedom to walk around, bounce, do some calf raises, and depending on which Ke$ha song you have playing, maybe even some office-appropriate dancing.