Sitting has taken a lot of flak in recent years with some health researchers going so far as to dub it ‘the new smoking.’ While sitting isn’t likely to ravage your lungs as severely as a pack of smokes, it does carry significant health risks. Extended periods of sitting have been linked to increased rates of colon cancer, endometrial cancer, lung cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and a slew of musculoskeletal issues (Diabetes Res. Clin. Pract., Sept. 2012; Am J Epidemiol., Mar. 2013; JNCI, Jun. 2014) Sitting for extended periods has also been shown to lower life expectancy regardless of cause of death (JAMA, Mar. 2012).
Initially, the thought was that these risks were due to low overall physical activity levels in people who spend a large portion of their day sitting. However, recent research has shown that sitting carries the same risks even if you exercise regularly. The problem is not a lack of physical activity, but rather the time spent sitting itself. Clearly we need to address our sedentary lifestyles head on. An increasing number of people are doing this by moving to a standing desk. But is this the right move for you?
Nurses and assembly line workers can attest that standing all day comes with its own set of issues, especially if your body is conditioned for 8+ hours a day of sitting. Moving to a standing desk adds load to the feet, legs, and core which many seasoned desk jockeys are just not ready for. Multiple studies have also linked prolonged periods of standing with its own set of health risks (WORK, Jan. 2002). But don’t give up hope just yet. There is an answer and a surprisingly simple one. Mix it up. That’s right, don’t limit yourself to one working posture; sit some, stand some, walk some, heck if you can figure out how to be productive lying down go ahead and add that in too. The key here is avoiding extended periods in one posture.
Some employers have fully embraced this concept with modular work environments where employees have the ability to switch from sitting, to standing, to walking at a treadmill desk. But even if you are stuck in a traditional office or cube there are many ways to get up and stay healthy. The simplest solution is to take regular breaks throughout the day. I recommend using a timer on your phone or desktop to remind you to take a short 30 second break every 20 minutes. Each break should include getting up out of your chair and performing a few quick stretches like the ones below from Bob Anderson’s book Stretching in the Office:
It is also good to work in a few longer breaks where you can take a walk around the office. Break up your day with trips to the water cooler, coffee machine or a coworker’s desk. Forgoing an email to deliver a message personally will get you out of the chair while fostering good relationships with your coworkers.
If you do decide to go the standing desk route, make sure that you also have the option to alternate between both sitting and standing. An adjustable monitor and/or keyboard stand, a stool with a foot rest or a stack of books can all be used to make a function workstation for either standing or sitting. When standing, try going barefoot on a cushioned mat to ease the strain on your feet. Prop one foot up on a box or foot rest to vary your posture and relieve strain caused by locking out your knees.
The key thing to keep in mind with whatever workstation you use is to move as much as possible and avoid staying in any one posture for over 20 minutes without a break. If you are having discomfort when attempting the switch to a standing desk don’t give up. Start with short periods of standing and return to sitting when you become fatigued. Low back pain while standing is a sign of a common muscular imbalance that develops from years of excessive sitting. Talk to a health professional who can help you develop an individualized strategy for correcting the muscle imbalance. It’s never too late to make a healthy change in your work environment so why not start today.
Try the following links for help getting started with a standing desk: