I have some bad news. Are you sitting down? Well, don’t. Sitting is the bad news.
We spend too much time on our collective keisters, researchers say, and this can significantly boost our risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. Even 30 minutes of exercise a day may not be enough to counteract the deleterious effects of those marathon chair sessions. One chilling recent headline summed it up: “Too much sitting can kill you.”
Like many of us, Jim Wallace, a software developer in Manhattan, often sits more than 12 hours a day, so the media coverage of chair-as-death-trap caught his attention. Plus, he wanted to shed a few pounds and figured that standing would burn extra calories. In February, he moved to a new office and noticed an unclaimed standing desk, so he claimed it. The previous user had reverted to sitting. That sounded like a red flag to me, but not to Wallace. “I walk everywhere in New York City, so I thought standing would be no big deal,” he says.
Wallace didn’t mind mornings with the standing desk. But after about six hours, he started to flag. “Have you ever been so hungry that you can’t concentrate on anything? That nagging feeling is what you get when you stand all day,” he told me. “I was always waiting for someone to go home so I could sit down at that person’s desk.”
He endured four months of this before going back to an office chair. “It stinks when you first start going to the gym, but eventually you get the runner’s high,” he says. “I never got the stander’s high.” That’s probably a good thing, because overzealous standing won’t do your body any favors, either: Research suggests that many hours on your feet can increase the risk of varicose veins and carotid atherosclerosis.
Some might choose less rigorous standing options for the office, like stand-up meetings. While working at an advertising agency a few years ago, Edward Aten, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur and start-up consultant, experienced some of these. That led to a hypothesis about the true motivation behind chair-free meetings, and it has nothing to do with health or efficient use of time: “People don’t like work, and they’ll do anything they can do to make it more exciting,” Aten says. That’s a pretty bleak threshold for office excitement, but he does have a point. “You don’t hear people talk about watching TV standing up,” he says.
Even more challenging: the treadmill desk. This is a great solution, if you happen to prefer absurdly over-engineered solutions. Here’s the thing: Plenty of us already feel like we’re on a treadmill at work. Why amplify that psychic torment with an actual treadmill, so you can trudge along on a path to nowhere? Or does existential angst count as a destination?
I decided to try it anyway. My makeshift treadmill desk consisted of an iPad propped on a treadmill’s magazine ledge, and a wireless keyboard resting on a board placed across the handrails. Struck by the meta-urge to talk about treadmill desks while using a treadmill desk, I gave Marc Tinsley a call. Based in Monroeville, Pa., he’s a workplace consultant specializing in wellness and productivity. Or, as my interview notes indicated , wellneess and productiviy . It’s the kind of creative spelling you can expect when you’re typing and talking and walking on a treadmill. At 1 mile per hour, I was using the recommended pace for treadmill typing. If you’re wondering how that pace feels, imagine you’re in a footrace with Dawn of the Dead zombies and you want to give them a sporting chance.
Tinsley shares my disdain for treadmill desks. “I think they’re silly, basically,” he says. “It’s a misguided attempt to integrate physical activity into the workplace.”
To facilitate the detachment of derrières from chairs, Tinsley encourages clients to set up stations for various tasks. For example, Tinsley’s phone is not on his desk. It’s on a filing cabinet across the room, which forces him to get up periodically throughout the day.
John Thyfault, associate professor in the University of Missouri’s Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, recommends that you get out of your chair and move around every 30 minutes. He uses a timer to remind himself. “I struggle sometimes,” Thyfault told me. “But I also started feeling that I had better cognitive function and focus if I gave myself breaks.”
Like most office workers, Thyfault was used to hunkering in his chair for prolonged periods. He changed his behavior this year, swayed by studies on the epidemiology of sitting. That includes his own research, published in March in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise . In Thyfault’s study, participants who took fewer than 5,000 steps daily over the course of three days experienced a significant spike in blood sugar after eating. Those spikes did not occur when the same participants walked at least 10,000 steps daily.
Thyfault is convinced we should weave more physical activity into our workday, but he also believes we can do this without kicking our chairs to the curb. Even the busiest workers can find ways to squeeze in a little cardio. “I’ll sometimes pop out of my chair and run in place for 10 seconds, because I don’t like leaving my office,” he says. (This is probably a disappointment to co-workers who would love a chance to showcase his running-in-place skills on YouTube.)
Talking with Thyfault and others, I developed a personal mantra for office health: Be less rump-reliant. That doesn’t mean I’m a perpetual motion machine, but I am developing better habits. I try to get up and move every 30 minutes, and I stand for brief stints to check email or surf the Web. I didn’t need to break up with my office chair – I just needed a little space.
If you want to join the chairless office movement, feel free. I’m going to sit this one out.
S.A. Swanson writes about science, health, and technology. Her work has appeared in publications including Chicago magazine and ScientificAmerican.com.