My Efforts to Sit Less

Starting with a NY Times article in February entitled Stand Up While You Read This! there has been quite a bit of attention paid to recent studies concluding that sitting is bad for you irrespective of the amount of exercise you get. Another good article is Sentenced to the Chair by the team at Men’s Health.

Here’s an excerpt from the NY Times article:

It doesn’t matter if you go running every morning, or you’re a regular at the gym. If you spend most of the rest of the day sitting — in your car, your office chair, on your sofa at home — you are putting yourself at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers and an early death. In other words, irrespective of whether you exercise vigorously, sitting for long periods is bad for you.

That, at least, is the conclusion of several recent studies. Indeed, if you consider only healthy people who exercise regularly, those who sit the most during the rest of the day have larger waists and worse profiles of blood pressure and blood sugar than those who sit less.

And the Men’s Health article:

Perhaps “exercising couch potato” would be more accurate, but Hamilton, a physiologist and professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, would still classify you as sedentary. “People tend to view physical activity on a single continuum,” he says. “On the far side, you have a person who exercises a lot; on the other, a person who doesn’t exercise at all. However, they’re not necessarily polar opposites.”

Hamilton’s take, which is supported by a growing body of research, is that the amount of time you exercise and the amount of time you spend on your butt are completely separate factors for heart-disease risk. New evidence suggests, in fact, that the more hours a day you sit, the greater your likelihood of dying an earlier death regardless of how much you exercise or how lean you are. That’s right: Even a sculpted six-pack can’t protect you from your chair.

But it’s not just your heart that’s at risk from too much sitting; your hips, spine, and shoulders could also suffer. In fact, it’s not a leap to say that a chair-potato lifestyle can ruin you from head to toe.

Make no mistake: “Reguarly exercising is not the same as being active,” says Peter Katzmarzyk, Ph.D., Hamilton’s colleague at Pennington, the nation’s leading obesity research center. Katzmarzyk is referring to the difference between official exercise activity, such as running, biking, or lifting weights, and so-called nonexercise activity, like walking to your car, mowing the lawn, or simply standing. “A person may hit the gym every day, but if he’s sitting a good deal of the rest of the time, he’s probably not leading an overall active life,” says Katzmarzyk.

You might dismiss this as scientific semantics, but energy expenditure statistics support Katzmarzyk’s notion. In a 2007 report, University of Missouri scientists said that people with the highest levels of nonexercise activity (but little to no actual “exercise”) burned significantly more calories a week than those who ran 35 miles a week but accumulated only a moderate amount of nonexercise activity. “It can be as simple as standing more,” Katzmarzyk says.

I’ll let you read the articles and draw your own conclusions. There’s a whole lot to it, and by no means does any of this dismiss the importance of eating right, exercising regularly, or getting a good night’s sleep, but it does make quite a bit of sense that if you sit a lot a) your leg, back, and abdominal muscles do absolutely nothing, b) your lack of movement and need for muscles to stabilize you results in less calories burned, and c) it’s not out of the realm of possibility that there are many other negative psychological/physiological effects that we’re just starting to understand.

Now this is somewhat scary to me because I’m the exact person mentioned in these articles – I exercise regularly, but often after my hour of exercise I’ll spend the rest of the day on my computer. I’ve also had a history of back problems going back to middle school, although the past few years it hasn’t been much of an issue. I’m somewhat saved by the fact that I’m very fidgety and I’m constantly getting up to grab a drink of water, make some tea, eat a snack, change the laundry, use the bathroom, etc etc. It’s rare that I actually sit for longer than 30 minutes at a time. Still, regardless of the number of breaks, many days I spend most of 10+ hours in a chair.

So, about a month ago I decided to try to cut back on my chair time.

The first thing I did was to start rotating between using my chair and an exercise ball. If I have to be sitting, at least the exercise ball requires my legs and core to keep me stabilized and sitting upright. Occasionally I’ve also worked from my knees, although I’ll need to pick up a mat to cushion them if I decide to do that regularly.

The other thing I decided to do was to build a standing desk, something that’s en vogue on Lifehacker, partially due to articles like those mentioned above. I wasn’t looking to spend a lot of money or take up a lot of space, so this took some thought. When I had back injuries in the past and couldn’t sit, I would just put an end table on top of a table and get to work. I went out into the living room and grabbed one, and sure enough it was the perfect height when placed on my desk. That weekend I went out to Target and picked up this table for $14.

Here are some pictures:

seated

Seated

standing

Standing

Since I can’t take advantage of my dual monitors, keyboard, and mouse using the standing desk, I tend to save my programming for while I’m seated. This actually works out great. On my non-warehouse days, I’ll start the day standing. I’ll answer my email and do any other quick daily tasks. If it’s a gym day, I’ll go do my workout next. Then when I get back I’ll rotate between the ball and the chair while I dig in to whatever project I’m working on. On any given day I might spend 1-2 hours standing and another 1-2 hours sitting on the ball.

Overall I’m really glad I’ve worked this into my routine. Every little bit helps, and health aside I enjoy the change of pace when I switch from one set up to another. In the future, I may build a more robust standing desk, or possibly build a desk around a treadmill – I’ve read about people who do this and do a slow walk all day long. I suppose the best solution would be to have my main desk elevated, get an elevated chair, and then be able to rotate back and forth between standing and sitting without having to adjust my computer set up…

Update 5/11/2011 – Check out this infographic:

Sitting Is Killing You

9 comments on My Efforts to Sit Less

  1. Anthony says:

    Interesting post. I know personally that I spend quite a bit of time on the phone, and not much of that time actually requires looking at the computer. During that time, I am usually pacing, and moving from room to room. It seems dumb, but by the end of the day, I’ve probably walked farther/longer than people who go to the gym regularly after work. Add some dedicated exercise to that, and I feel like I get a decent amount of movement in for someone with a “desk job”

    • Adam McFarland says:

      That’s actually a really good point Anthony. I think they bring that up in one of the articles. Standing up and moving around during phone calls can really add up.

      If you think about it, an hour a day over the course of your entire career is a ton of time. That’s why I am just trying to make a few small changes here and there.

      I too am a pacer when I’m on the phone…I’m constantly walking around. Unfortunately I’m not on the phone often enough for it to be considered a regular thing.

  2. Tim says:

    Cool post, my work station is very unique, I’ll be curious what you think of it when you see it, I don’t know anyone else who has a station like the one I do. I probably sit at a computer 10+ hours/day, but much like yourself I get up and move around quite a bit all day long. I too am a pacer when I’m on the phone, I probably am on the phone for 3-5 hours/day but unfortunately most of the time I am tethered to the computer.

    I’m going to think about this a bit more, maybe there is a way I can integrate a different standing or mobile functionality into my day. Making money and growing a business is nice, but health and wellbeing are far more important.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Tim – Definitely looking forward to checking out your workstation. Will be interested to hear if you come up with any changes after giving this some thought. The way I look at it, just by consciously thinking about this stuff we’re more likely to make small choices to be more “active” during our work days.

  3. Tim says:

    Great point Adam, I’ve honestly never considered this before, now I have increased awareness which is the first step. The problem is that I don’t have a desk or an office chair, my work station is dubbed “the command post” and is a highly unorthodox, but highly comfortable and efficient layout for me. I’ll wrap my brain around this over the next few days, I’m sure I can come up with something!

    • Adam McFarland says:

      The work station without a desk or chair…interesting. Now I’m really looking forward to checking it out!

  4. eugene says:

    haha…standing desk…love it. If I ever get out of my 9-5 (or 8-5) I may have to steal your idea.

    Maybe if I had a standing cubicle I wouldn’t be dazed half the day.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      “Maybe if I had a standing cubicle I wouldn’t be dazed half the day.” Great line lol…and probably true!

  5. […] was a big problem because, well, I sit all day long while I work. About a year ago I wrote about my efforts to sit less, which included using a standing station for my laptop sometimes. In that post I outlined all of […]

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