Besides stuff like tribal warfare, cannibalism, and high infant mortality, it seems like most any divergence from our ancestral norms is ultimately detrimental, or at least problematic. Nutrition is an obvious one, along with sunlight, sleep, and exercise. The mainstream media is even beginning to question the superiority of modern footwear. And then there’s the seemingly simple act of sitting down in a chair. It seems harmless, but as I discussed last year and a recent NY Times piece mentioned last month, sitting for extended periods of time is strongly linked with increased mortality and metabolic syndrome, regardless of how much exercise a sitter gets.
The chair is a bit like wheat, actually: a relative novelty to which we aren’t physiologically adapted that has become a cultural staple nonetheless. For at least eight hours each day, we twist our bodies into weird Tetris blocks with poor posture and sit, for the most part unmoving, on chairs. When you stop and think about it, sitting down in a chair for extended periods of time seems a little silly. I mean, it’s not even all that comfortable (isn’t that why we distort our bodies with terrible posture – to make sitting more comfortable?). We aren’t “designed” to sit in chairs. We’re certainly meant to stand, but we sit in chairs because we designed them to fit our anatomy, and I somehow doubt that whoever came up with the chair was thinking about long-term effects on our physiology.
Acutely, sitting weakens our muscles, especially in the legs and the hips. When you sit, your glutes are totally inactive. They aren’t being used. They’re stretched out. It’s just one big static stretch, all day long, which weakens them. Strong, engaged glutes are required for effective, natural movement. Running, walking, lifting weights – if you’re doing any of this with weak, inactive glutes from excessive sitting, you’re an injury waiting to happen. Sitting also causes permanent hip flexion. It shortens your hip flexors and makes them tight. Without good hip mobility and strength, your ability to perform the compound lower body lifts, let alone just walk around and perform day-to-day motions, is going to be severely compromised.
Besides, is sitting really all that comfortable? What are we trying to avoid here, really?
Most people just don’t know any better. Sitting down is part of our culture. Try going on a first date at a nice restaurant and waving off the chair. Try being that weird guy that stands in the movie theater, or that chronically unemployed applicant who refuses to sit down for the job interview. That guy is weird because he’s rare; he doesn’t even really exist. Sitting down is about the most uncontroversial societal expectation out there. You could have massive drag-out verbal fights over tipping or saying “bless you” or holding the door open for people, but sitting down in a chair has the wind of consensus at its back.
Which is why lobbying your boss for a stand-up workstation might be tricky, perhaps trickier even than convincing management to let you nap on the job. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about standing – it probably comes off as a bit weird or wacky – but it does require structural changes to your workstation, and changes can be expensive or time-consuming. Many of the larger companies have ergonomics teams dedicated to helping employees sit and work well. Asking them for assistance might work, but whatever you do a new desk is going to be installed and feathers will be ruffled. Sure, if they’re going to ask you to work a full day at a computer, they probably owe it to you to provide a standing workstation, but it’s not a perfect world. People will see your fancy new standing workstation as an extravagance.
“Why can’t he just sit/eat normal food/wear shoes like everyone else?”
If your boss offers resistance, you have a couple options. First, bring the data. Send an email, print out copies, whatever – just create a compendium of powerful references showing the dangers of sitting for hours on end. I’ve thrown a little something together for just such an endeavor:
Australian study (PDF) reveals sedentarism/sitting at work leads to more sitting at home, and eventually obesity. You want a healthy, vibrant workforce, don’t you?
New Zealand study shows that workers who sat for long periods of time were more likely to get deep vein thrombosis.
Excessive sitting was linked to negative metabolic and cardiovascular effects in another study.
One doctor even compared sitting to smoking cigarettes in terms of negative health effects.
Here’s that NY Times piece once again.
To round everything up, healthy employees are productive employees. Healthier employees incur lower health care costs. They miss fewer workdays. They work better, harder, and smarter when they’re at work. And workers with standing workstations are more energetic and more focused (no crippling back pain to worry about). They also take fewer breaks than sitters (PDF), which, once again, leads to greater productivity.
If your boss seems amenable, and you’re feeling cocky, slip in this final link.
Still, jobs are scarce, and employees hold few real bargaining chips these days. Your boss or your department may still balk at any additional short-term costs, even in the face of all that evidence. If that’s the case, I suggest you take matters into your own hands. Build your own. Even if your company won’t spring for a standing workstation conversion, I doubt they’ll complain if you handle it yourself.
A standing workstation doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to work.
When I work from home, for example, and I feel like standing, I just put my laptop on a stack of hardcovers sitting on the counter.
If you like to work out of cafes, you’re in luck. I find that most people in coffee shops avoid the tall tables at all costs, instead opting for cushy chairs or plush sofas, so they’re generally available. Just push the tall chair aside and work standing. Tall café tables tend to be the perfect height for standing and working.
If you’re a laptop user at work, a bunch of books from the corporate library (no one reads those – c’mon) stacked up could work in a pinch.
You could spring for one of the official standing workstations in the link above, but that’s unnecessary. I’d recommend doing what this woman did and spend $20 to build your own. She essentially bought a light baker’s rack that fit on her desk, attached some no-slip shelf paper to the bottom of the laptop, and was done with it. If you have a desktop computer, you’re going to need more room, but you don’t really need a dedicated “standing workstation.” You simply need a reliable surface at the proper height.
Whatever method you choose, just make sure you’re actually comfortable working in the position. You shouldn’t be hunched over, bent at the waist, or straining with your arms to reach the workstation. You shouldn’t be leaning on the desk for support. Standing up to work is about comfort in addition to health, and you defeat the purpose if you have to strain to make it work. Before you buy anything, test out different workstation heights. Measure the one that works and keep that measurement handy when you’re shopping or building.
If I make standing to work seem like a panacea, I don’t mean to, because there are potential problems. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety caution against prolonged static standing, which can increase the chances of “sore feet, swelling of the legs, varicose veins, general muscular fatigue, lower back pain, and stiffness.” (Check your posture if that’s the case!) But the problem isn’t standing, really; it’s standing and never moving, which probably isn’t all that different from sitting and never moving (the symptoms of both are almost identical). I’m not worried about MDA readers being inactive while standing, though. You guys’ll probably be busting out random burpees and lunges in between TPS reports and video-conferences.
Anyone use a standing workstation currently? Got any tips for newbies looking to convert? Let everyone know in the comments section!