There’s a reasonable chance you’ve read something recently about the cumulative harms of being seated for most of the day. It has been compared with smoking, obesity and chronic illness on the scale of Things That Can Kill You. There is little wonder that, in some circles, the response has been to try to change the way we work, rather than to change the work itself. It makes sense – the jobs we considered to be “sitting jobs” aren’t necessarily reliant on our backsides being glued to the base of a chair for 8 or more hours a day. Enter a brand new market – desks that will align with your midsection and allow you to do your work – whatever that may be – standing upright.
Why we needed a new option
According to ScienceDaily, the average desk worker will spend 5 hours and 41 minutes of every day being seated, and that’s before they put their feet up at night. Research is showing again and again that this kind of sedentary lifestyle is comprehensively linked to higher rates of death from heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even cancer. It is not a stretch to say that habitual sitting will shorten your life. It might seem hyperbolic or exaggerated, but the numbers don’t appear to lie – even with tens of thousands of participants, the study results are continually being replicated.
Dr James Levine, an endocrinologist and researcher with the US-based Mayo Clinic, has been the most high-profile advocate for increasing standing in everyday activities. He argues that modern life encourages us to be passively seated in almost every way. Driving, working, reading, discussing, waiting – right from the time we are children. His current research is testing the affect that “active” classrooms have on children’s cognitive abilities. He is also the inventor of the treadmill desk. Dr Levine’s previous studies have also demonstrated something that rather shocked us: even those who exercise more than the official guidelines recommend are affected in the same way. They may feel aerobically fit, but metabolically (the way our cells and body systems operate) they may not be healthy at all. This was a wakeup call.
The downside of sitting down
What is it about sitting for prolonged periods that causes so much damage to our bodies? Many of these factors can be measured and observed, and give us an idea about what is happening metabolically as we rest. For starters, we burn an average of 50 calories per hour less when we are seated. Scientists can also monitor the affect that sitting has on blood glucose levels and insulin, demonstrating that it is a severe risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Add to this the diminished release of the enzyme lipoprotein lipase, which helps to regulate LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, when muscles remain sedentary and it all adds up to paint a fairly grim picture.
The upside of standing up
In the 1950s, British scientists presented evidence that prolonged sitting was correlated with cardiovascular disease. They compared the rate of heart disease in a group of London bus drivers with their bus conductor colleagues, who stand. The standing group experienced far fewer heart attacks and vascular problems. Since this time, we know that adults who sit for two hours more each day will have an increased risk of the aforementioned health problems of about 125%.
Obesity is always a topic never far from the fingertips of health writers and epidemiologists, and it is also relevant to our current subject. Why do some people stay slim while others struggle to stop the spread? The research of scientists like Dr James Levine has also gone some way into explaining the differences between individuals who may seem to fall afoul of the stereotypes – lanky people who despise structured exercise, for example, or larger people who slog it out at the gym each day. One thing that stands out from this kind of research, pun intended, is that those who easily maintain a more slender frame burn more calories in subtle ways – fidgeting, twitching, talking to a colleague directly rather than emailing, taking the stairs and standing up to stretch. These small things add up to a significant 350 calories per day in spent energy. So what if we could set ourselves up to fidget?
The standing desk can do exactly that. Spend the next ten minutes standing and be conscious of just how often you stretch, shift your weight, bounce on the balls of your feet or tap your toes. Now follow that up with ten minutes of sitting, and compare your urge to move. There’s a good chance you won’t want to move much at all. But jumping right in the deep end can be fraught with danger – going from sitting all day to standing is a radical move that will require huge changes in the way your body copes. It’s important to think it through.
If you’re going to do it, do it right
Most experts in the field of exercise research recommend starting with short spurts of sitting interspersed with standing. The reason is that, like sitting still, standing still can lead to the same types of blood pooling and joint stress, it just tends to happen in your legs and feet. If you go all in, chances are you’ll hurt and you’ll give up. If you have the choice, an adjustable desk or a tall chair (stools are not ideal) will give your lower extremities a rest and keep you motivated to increase your standing times. And let’s face it, we all have those days where we just want to curl up in a ball and hibernate, and these are the times where a chair will be seen as a sweet mercy. And surely the odd day won’t kill you.
For those lucky few who have the option of working at a treadmill desk, you have the best of both worlds – you get the benefits of standing and lose the risk of painful strains and sore joints from standing still. Your back will be strong and your posture would be highly regarded even at Finishing School. For everyone else, try to train yourself to move gently but constantly as you stand. Sway, tap, bend your knees – hey, you can even dance. We won’t stop you. And if you’re feeling super experimental and cool, get in a hamster wheel (pictured). If your boss objects, show him or her this article. And mention that it’s science.
Nothing new under the sun
Standing desks may seem like a modern answer to a modern problem, but the truth is that they go back centuries. Hemingway, Churchill, Dickens, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson and even Da Vinci were all known to work at a standing desk. Jefferson even designed his own. All seemed to realise the benefits of avoiding sedentary behaviour – or perhaps they just liked being on their feet. Either way, if you have the chance to try it out, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. And if you absolutely cannot tolerate it, you can always go back to the way things were.
Because prevention in health is always better than cure, planning for the future is key. Compare private health insurance providers today and safeguard your health whether you’re a sitter, a stander or somewhere in between.