HealthBeat: To sit or not to sit? Your health may depend on it
I haven’t done enough research to make this claim with total confidence, but here I go anyway: New Hampshire, first in the nation to recognize the evils of the office chair.
All the way back to 2003, then-Gov. Craig Benson made a bold statement with one of his first acts of office. He ordered a large table the height of a bar and required participants at every meeting to stand at the table instead of sitting.
Okay, so Benson was aiming for shorter meetings, not a longer life span, but he was ahead of the curve. Both the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker ran articles in late May extolling the healthful virtues of standing and the vice of sitting.
“The chair is out to kill us,” James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine, told the Times. “Sitting is the new smoking,” declared another expert in the piece.
The science: While sitting, the body burns fewer calories, which can lead to increased weight and all the problems associated with that. But sitting can also cause trouble on the molecular level by inhibiting production of the enzyme lipoprotein lipase, which is essential for turning bad cholesterol into good. Sitting can also lead to insulin resistance, but the studies stopped short of saying it’s a cause of diabetes.
And no, going to the gym after or before work doesn’t help as much as you might expect. While it can burn calories not expended during chair-time, the biochemical benefits of exercise start to wear off as quickly as an hour later, another study showed.
Instead of sitting all day, Levine works at a desk attached to a treadmill, walking about a mile or two an hour, according to the New Yorker article, which also featured him.
I can’t see the newsroom budget allowing me to buy a treadmill anytime soon, but what about a standing desk? It’s not that new of an idea, actually. Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill both did it. So did Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, and Dickens’s character Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol. (Everything old is, as always, new again.)
Two Monitor staffers recently built their own standing desks. Here’s what they say so far:
Concord city reporter Laura McCrystal was the first, the trailblazer. She built her desk to alleviate chronic hip pain that her physical therapist said was being exacerbated by sitting for extended periods of time.
She hit an obstacle when the first supports she used proved too weak to hold her computer, but then she piled copier paper boxes on her desk, filled them with phone books and encyclopedias to keep them steady and set her computer on top.
After about a month, her hip pain has reduced a lot but not gone away entirely, she said.
Annmarie Timmins sits in the same corner of the newsroom as McCrystal and watched the trial and error unfold before grabbing her own copier paper boxes.
Timmins had read the New Yorker article about Levine’s treadmill desk, written by Susan Orlean at her own treadmill desk.
Intrigued, she looked at buying one but balked at the cost. After three weeks with her own jerry-rigged standing
desk, she has found she’s not getting the headaches she used to experience every day, probably from improving her posture and not letting her shoulders get too tight.
She said she’s less tired at the end of the day but finds her leg muscles feel more tired when she exercises, though she expects that to lessen over time.
Stephen Heavener, executive director of the Capital Regional Development Council, has been working while standing since the beginning of 2009, and he still loves it.
Naturally inclined to fidgeting, he hates to sit but often has to drive hours each day to and from meetings across the state.
He was looking for a way to mitigate the negative health effects of all that sitting in the car when he noticed a standing desk at someone else’s office the previous fall. He started researching the desks and found a company that produces custom-made, uniquely-measured ones. No copier paper boxes for him.
The order form asked for 10 to 15 measurements, things such as the length of his arm from elbow to wrist, and how high he wanted the computer screen.
In the past four years, the desk has paid off in the ways he hoped it would: He’s sitting less and therefore less fidgety, and he’s walking more, pacing around the office on phone calls instead of glued to a chair.
“There’s been unintended positive consequences, too,” he said.
“The desk was this kind of unconscious barrier: You’re on one side, I’m on the other. Now, I have the desk up against the wall, and when the staff or anyone comes in, you come right at me,” he said. “I see more openness, more dialogue, more collaboration.”
And that collaboration is happening, as Benson would have predicted, a lot more efficiently, Heavener said.
“Meetings and conversations are shorter because if you’re sitting down, somebody comes in and sits to talk, and then you both relax and talk about five other things that maybe aren’t important,” he said. “Now, they’ll walk back out right away with the fresh information they were looking for, and not sit down and lose track of what they were about to do. It’s healthy, it’s more collaborative, more efficient. All around, it’s all upside.”
Heavener said if you’re going to do it, do it right and get a standing desk that fits well.
“But,” he added, “it’s better to do it even if you can’t do it perfectly, than not do it at all.”
Timmins, too, said she’d advise anyone interested in the idea to give it a try, as long as they can construct something that allows their elbows to bend at a 90-degree angle. Keep a chair handy, too, just in case. Timmins uses it when she’s reading through documents so she can take notes, because her elevated station accommodates only her computer monitor and keyboard.
The last bit of advice: Bring sneakers to the office.
“Flats are very bad,” she said. “Dress shoes in general are just no good for standing all day.”
McCrystal agreed: She’s been bringing sneakers to the office to wear while at her desk, and she freely acknowledges they look awfully funny with her office-wear.
The idea of giving up my heels, ladies and gentlemen, is what will keep me in the “considering it” column for now. Do you have a standing desk? Tweet me a picture or post it on the Monitor’s Facebook page.
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)