We know that sitting for extended periods of time yields negative outcomes. You know that, right?
A sedentary lifestyle, whether led by 9-to-5 desk jobs or laziness, can have major implications on weight management, cardiovascular health, and metabolic effectiveness, among other important areas of our wellbeing. We sit in our car, and on the train, and while eating, and while watching television—and often at work, where many of us spend most of our time.
The explosive rise of the technology in recent decades, and consequent boom of knowledge workers, has rendered computer-based jobs common across most fields. As a result, the situation surrounding sitting—the “new smoking,” as it has been dubbed—is perhaps more dire than ever.
SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING
One reason is that physical exercise is unable to fully negate the impact extended periods of sitting inflicts on our bodies, according to a 2016 statement from the American Heart Association. Based on their research, it would take an exceptionally long and intense workout after every day of sitting at work—and likely ample stretching as well—in order to counteract the prior half-day of idleness and poor posture.
Not only is that an unrealistic expectation for many professionals, it also only brings a person back to square one. All that effort won’t necessarily make a chronic sitter healthy; it may merely diminish the damage dealt during a day in front of a computer. And even that is being hopeful.
“Regardless of how much physical activity someone gets, prolonged sedentary time could negatively impact the health of your heart and blood vessels,” noted Deborah Young, director of behavioural research at Kaiser Permanente Southern California, whose research was cited by the AHA.
Another reason to be concerned is the recent COVID-19 Pandemic, which swept the world by storm, thus sending most knowledge workers flying back to their couches to perform tasks from home. Many of us found ourselves spending much more time in our humble abodes, and for many, that means plenty of sitting and otherwise sedentary activities. Furthermore, typical measures of combatting or replacing sedentary time—such as doing a yoga class or hitting the gym—have been on-and-off accessible for the last year-plus.
(For more on how to tackle Pandemic-related issues, check out my last Techcouver essay, A Post-Pandemic Reframing of Our Relationship with Technology.)
There are other dangers still to the seemingly safe and sanitary office job. Commuting by car is often a stressful activity, and excessive or prolonged stress can lead to many bad things. Car accidents remain among the top ten causes of death for Canadians. Meanwhile, corporate culture rewards working late; however, those who work late are more likely to smoke cigarettes, exercise less, and pay fewer visits to the doctor, according to a study from the University of Illinois.
Eating out for lunch can be a fun mid-shift escape from the desk, but meals out are typically more expensive and less healthy than meals made at home. These tasty but calorically dense alternatives quietly contribute to a growing epidemic of obesity in Canada and elsewhere. In 1985, overweight and obesity accounted for 5% of deaths, according to a study published in Obesity Reviews in 2003. That figure nearly doubled by 2000 and newer data suggests it continues to grow.
Finally, excessive sittings results in bad posture—anterior pelvic tilt and rounded shoulders, most commonly—which is aesthetically unappealing and can lead to bigger kinetic chain issues and injuries down the road.
STANDING IS OUR SAVIOUR
My favourite solution to sitting is to stand. And the best way to achieve this consistently and long-term is by investing in a standing desk, which allows one to perform computer and other work in a healthier position.
Standing desks should be commonplace in every office. Even so, standing desks alone do not solve all problems. Standing is better than sitting, yes—but if that’s all you’re doing, it’s still sort of a sedentary activity. Movement is also key; a short walk or stretch every hour helps. It is worth noting that such things are easier to make habits out of when you’re already standing.
Standing, at a minimum, keeps muscles engaged and your metabolism revved, burning up to 50 calories hourly versus sitting. That’s multiple hundred calories burned daily for a typical office shift, or roughly two pounds of fat burned per month based on a regular workweek.
A 2015 TED Talk by Murat Dalkilinç points out that because humans are made to move, the act of sitting yields no benefit. We burn less fat, as mentioned, while reduced blood flow means that we aren’t necessarily recovering better than more dynamic forms of rest, such as yoga and light walking.
Slowed breathing can result in less oxygen flow to the brain, according to Dalkilinç, which may impact focus and productivity. He suggests chronic sitters being in active motion at least every half hour, and emphasizes the importance of maintaining good posture while sitting.
SIX TIPS ON HOW TO STAND STRAIGHT
Switching from sitting to standing may be a high-friction move for some. As a seasoned stander, here are some tips to optimize your experience.
1. Consider Ergonomics
The table height of your standing desk should be at or just below the level of your elbows, granting a roughly 90-degree bend in the arms for optimal keyboard and mouse usage. The computer monitor should be raised from the desk, especially if it’s a laptop, so that your eyes line up with the middle or upper two-thirds of the screen—and the screen should be tilted slightly backward, all to discourage looking down.
Tuck that chin and keep the neck neutral to your spine, avoiding any forward lean. If you feel a need to lean forward, your feet may be too far from the desk, or you may want to check your vision. (Poor eyesight while working at computers can also lead to shoddy ergonomics.)
2. Don’t Forget the Feet
Supportive shoes can help standers stay comfortable. Aim for function over form here.
A standing mat, typically constructed of various densities of foam, can greatly increase standing comfort as well, even without shoes. In a pinch, yoga mats do the trick, but long-term standers should invest in something thicker.
3. Use Some Muscle
Standing is an endurance exercise for some of our muscles, especially if we are not active people. Consider simple exercises to strengthen the key muscle groups that help us stand with good posture.
The big three areas we want to be strong: our core (try planks and dead bugs), our lower back (superman and back extensions), and our butt (glute bridges and reverse lunges). These basic but helpful movements can even be performed around your work area—no weight or equipment required!
4. Start Simple
If you’re afraid of taking the plunge on a nice piece of furniture like Vancouver’s own Effydesk or Victoria competitor Ergonomyx, consider a “converter” option such as those available from Vari—or even just make one yourself with household and office items like books and boxes. These simple hacks turn your current desk into a standing desk to battle-test the concept.
Ultimately, it’s worth investing in a quality desk to ensure optimal posture and a habit that sticks. These days, the market features a wide range of aesthetic and adjustable options at a variety of price points, so no excuses.
5. Use a Ball or Band
Placing a stability ball or similar underneath your desk (such as on the chair you use less now) gives your body something to gently lean in to, extending your standing endurance should muscles fatigue. Alternatively a resistance band wrapped around desk legs and our waist can offer a gentle tug toward the desk, allowing us to lean back slightly.
You may not look like the coolest person in your office doing this, but you might be the healthiest!
6. Encourage Blood Flow
As mentioned prior, standing is still sedentary. Ensure regular movement to keep your blood flowing evenly throughout the body.
A short walk and quick stretch keeps blood from pooling in our legs from gravity, which can begin to happen after multiple hours of standing. Pick a coworker on the opposite end of the building to visit, or circle the block outside for a hit of fresh air.
FINAL WORD: IT WORKS
I was a chronic sitter for years. Standing truly changed my life.
Within months, my posture and mobility improved; I felt more focused and productive throughout the day; and I was more likely leave my desk to take healthy active breaks from work. These days I sit for one or two hours per day and can’t imagine any more than that—I become stiff and restless quickly in that cruel, unnatural body position.
It seems obvious that humans are not designed to sit for very long. Research on the topic certainly agrees.
No matter how the transition to standing may feel at first, it’s ultimately what our body would rather do. I can’t recommend standing at work enough, even if you can only manage a couple of hours split up over the day. It gets easier, becomes more natural, and is rewarding all the way. Start small and simple and build from there.
Smoking lost its cool factor a long time ago. I do hope that chronic sitting will be recognized as an equal danger to our health soon, too.