You’ve just had a long day, working at your desk, you jump in your car to drive home, veg out on the couch when you get back, sit at the table to eat, then spend an hour or two sitting at your desk messing around on the computer, before returning to the couch. If any of this sounds familiar, your back and your body would like to have a stern word with you.
Two years ago, I noticed that my back was increasingly becoming painful. Sometimes, a dull throbbing, sometimes a sharp pinch on one side, often it felt like it was coming from the middle or lower part of the spine. I ignored it and wrote it off as a lack of exercise – after all, many of us know working at a desk job for 8+ hours a day isn’t the epitome of health. Little did I know that it was true, but for a different reason.
Sitting for an extended time isn’t just bad for your back. Increased risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and mortality occurs when we sit for more than six hours a day. Many people do that just at work, let alone the car trip or leisure time. Your processing of fat and cholesterol dramatically reduces. Your risk of diabetes (because insulin uptake reduces) and obesity increases. Crucially, this happens EVEN IF you go to the gym or for a run as part of your daily schedule. This happens EVEN IF you’re skinny like a twig. This happens EVEN IF you use a $1500 ‘ergonomic’ chair. The damage is still being done, just slightly less so, like drinking Coke Zero.
In short, when you sit for more than a few hours a day, your body shuts down because it has nothing to do. Then you die sooner. Marvelous.
From Olivia Judson (NYT):
As an example, consider lipoprotein lipase. This is a molecule that plays a central role in how the body processes fats; it’s produced by many tissues, including muscles. Low levels of lipoprotein lipase are associated with a variety of health problems, including heart disease. Studies in rats show that leg muscles only produce this molecule when they are actively being flexed (for example, when the animal is standing up and ambling about). The implication is that when you sit, a crucial part of your metabolism slows down.
Of course, I didn’t know this at the time – I piled on the exercise, but still the pain persisted. I tried different chairs, different desk and monitor heights, more mice and keyboards – trying valiantly and systematically to eliminate each potential cause, but to no avail. I would wake in the morning refreshed, but by the time I slept at night, there it was again – like the persistent voice in my head, except louder.
Then one day, by chance, I talked to a physiologist.
As obvious as it sounds now, humans haven’t evolved to sit for extended periods of time. The invention of the chair and sitting is just a minuscule blip in our journey to our present. But yet, in our culture, in leisure and in business, sitting is seen as the norm. Our primal hunter background of running around has been obfuscated by an abundance of readily-available food, comfort and technology. We just have no ‘need’ to stand that much and if there’s one thing you can bet on, is that modern humans will always take the easy way out, McDonalds is proof of this.
You can see where this is headed: more and more people like me with back pain, many without a clue why.
So let’s explore the physiology (note that I’m not an expert, consult your doctor for more information): Sitting on our ample behinds puts an increasingly large amount of strain on our spines. The muscles that hold the spinal discs in place, the core ‘ring’ of muscles that wrap our middles, our hip flexors, our legs, neck and back – all were never meant to be set in this elongated, half-extended L-shaped position for hours at a time. Let’s be clear, it’s a highly unnatural position for us and one that we pursue to our own detriment. In short, it’s a dangerous symptom of convenience that plagues modern mankind – but one that’s drilled into us at a young age (just like consumerism, but that’s another article).
I then decided to trial a standing desk set up at home. Simply described, it’s just elevating your working surface up a foot or two, to be used whilst standing. My makeshift beta version was as simple as putting a side-table on top of a desk, with another one closer for the keyboard and mouse. Note that I’ve been working in a desk job for the majority of my working life and within about fifteen minutes or so, my feet could take no more, so I rested. Rinse and repeat. After all, it’s a hard habit to break, but persistence is the key.
Within a week, the fifteen minutes grew to an hour, which then grew to two hours and now an easy three hours. I could feel my body gradually adjusting to this new extended position: the leg muscles, gluteus and back, all rallying in a brave alliance to adjust to their newly discovered challenge. Then, the breakthrough – my back pain began to diminish greatly. At first I thought this was a coincidence, but later I reverted to a sitting position for a few weeks for science’s sake, and I could clearly identify a correlation between sitting and back pain. This wasn’t just substituting one discomfort for another, it was a genuine revelation.
Best of all, I was actually enjoying standing up for extended periods of time. I could shift my weight around while reading, take steps here and there while watching a video, or easily take a walk around to get a drink or gather my thoughts – that subtle, but omnipresent obstacle between sitting and doing ‘something’ apart from looking at the computer was all but eliminated. From here, it just got better. I adapted my make shift standing desk to be more spacious, with a properly height-adjusted monitor. When I eventually got tired, I’d take a break and sit down or go for a walk.
My energy levels were higher, my focus and concentration improved and productivity was dramatically increased – enjoyment in all activities was greatly enhanced. Those lulls when reading a long document or watching a movie, gone (incidentally, I prefer to stand up when watching the TV as well). Daydreaming half-asleep when I’m supposed to be doing something important? Gone. Being distracted from a task and ending up wandering through YouTube for hours on end? Minimized.
Such benefits from such a simple change. Some people would kill for such improvements. I was also glad to know, that I wasn’t the only one, there were plenty of fellow standers who flourished. Even people with herniated discs.
This all began years ago and I’ve adopted it, quite happily, to be the norm. I’m only writing about it now (standing up, naturally) because I wanted to be entirely sure that this was the right thing to do. Not some gimmick or fad, but rather something tried and tested way, with measurable and huge results. Now, sitting down is a treat that I value and I’m conscious of how much time I spend engaging in. In my time outside the office, I’d say I’m standing about 60-70% of the time, there are some who prefer more. At work, I regularly take breaks to have a quick stretch every 20-30 minutes at most.
Some might be aghast at how such a simple and obvious action is revolutionary in any way, but try working while standing up at your desk. The strange looks, questions (and worse) will happen – that’s how deeply ingrained sitting in a chair like a collapsed sack of vegetables is, in our culture. Many of these people then wonder later why they have sore backs and seem to put on so much weight (an average person will burn 60 calories more per hour while standing).
If somebody comes to your house, don’t offer them a seat. You’re doing them a favor.
Of course, there are downsides. If you absolutely, positively require the maximum attention for a particular task, then standing up while doing it can be distracting for some. This is especially true if you’re just getting used to a standing desk set up, your feet and your body will continually remind you of what a strong habit sitting is. But with willpower and with planning, this can be overcome. There’s also the risk of varicose veins, swelling clown feet and circulatory disorders (namely carotid atherosclerosis). But really, it’s rare. Just like driving, or going for a run or drinking tap water, the pros far outweigh the cons. Just don’t overdo it, and take a break once in a while.
Do yourself a huge favor, just try it out for a while. You can use phone books, crates, side tables, anything and everything, all the way up to purpose built furniture if you have the money to spare. Just don’t end up plonking your laptop or tablet down low in front of you, because you’ll end up hunched over it, head hanging like a saggy lemon, which will end up in more problems.