Back Pain? Your Desk Chair May Be Killing You

Last Updated Jun 11, 2010 5:33 PM EDT

How would you like to be more focused at work and less fatigued afterward while also losing weight and curing your aching back?

If you're nodding like a Bobblehead, then I'd like you to meet a former boss of mine, Chuck McCullagh. When I worked for Chuck, he was a lean 158 pounds. Nearly three decades later, he's hardly changed. While other executives have become doughboys, he's maintained his fighting weight. And although exercise and diet plays a role, he also attributes his success to something uniquely simple, and admittedly unusual: standing at his desk.

"The genesis of it really had little to do with health and fitness," says McCullagh, a senior vice president at the Magazine Publishers of America in New York City. "I was studying for my PhD exams, and the stand-up desk kept me awake, encouraged mobility among the mile-high book stacks, and literally kept me on my toes. It wasn't until I started working for a company called Rodale Press that I connected it to health and fitness. The CEO at the time, Bob Rodale, used to stand at his desk, and he said it made one more conscious."

Actually, it does much more than that. One of the newest and most fascinating areas of exercise science is "inactivity physiology." Although it sounds contradictory, researchers are learning that what we do when we're not at the gym can have more impact on our health, fitness and well being than dedicated workouts.


James A. Levine, M.D. of the Mayo Clinic went as far as to build motion-sensing underwear (Fruit of the Zoom?) to record people's daily movement. He determined that the difference between being overweight and lean was an extra 2½ hours of movement per day. Note that this movement was not traditional exercise but rather just normal puttering. (Apparently playing soccer in your underwear is also good for your physique.)

Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., a biomedical scientist at the University of Missouri, has gone even further. He's examined the cellular reasons behind this and concluded that prolonged inactivity, such as sitting at a computer for 8 hours, lowers production of an influential fat-burning enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL). Indeed, an Australian study found that those who take more breaks from sitting have thinner waists, lower BMIs, and better blood-sugar and cholesterol profiles that those who sit all the time. And this was regardless of how much they exercised otherwise.

All of which means the simple act of reading this story on your feet rather than on your butt could make a big difference. Here are some other potential benefits:

It can banish back pain -- Amby Burfoot, an editor at Runner's World Magazine and the winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, says his debilitating back spasms disappeared after he began standing for half of his typical workday. "It's been a major blessing," he says, "and it's a concept that makes total sense." In fact, he says about a third of his office colleagues have now abandoned their desk chairs.

It can sharpen concentration -- In a small study, Dr. Levine found that radiologists more accurately interpreted CT scans when they were walking at 1 mph on a treadmill compared to when they were sitting down and reading them. Although additional research is needed, it appears that moving the body also moves the brain.

It can protect your heart -- Hamilton has also discovered that sitting less helps keep bad cholesterol in check. Apparently, that LPL enzyme also plays a role in lowering triglycerides.

Why not give it a try? Simply put a crate or sturdy box on your desk, position your computer accordingly and push your chair out of the way. Or just vow to stand up during conference calls or when reading paperwork.

If you feel significantly better at the end of the day, you might consider investing in a treadmill desk. The Walkstation by Steelcase allows you to stroll at speeds up to 2 mph while working at a height-adjustable console. Dr. Levine developed it, and units start at $4,199. The Woodway Desk-Mill allows for speeds up to 3.5 mph and has a nifty design that transforms a traditional sitting workstation into a higher treadmill desk at the push of a button. Watch a demonstration here.

"I've used the Walkstation," says Burfoot, "and I totally believe in the concept. It takes some getting used to, though. Like any new form of physical training, you have to build into it. I found that walking while working, even at 1 mph, initially threw my equilibrium off a bit. But I quickly adjusted. Obviously, if you're already pretty active, this isn't going to replace your workout, but it has great promise for the sedentary."

If you already own a conventional treadmill, there are also a bunch of do-it-yourself videos on YouTube that suggest inexpensive ways of converting it into a workstation. You can also approach your employer about retrofitting the office. Dr. Levine claims his Walkstation is half the price of setting up a conventional office cubicle and can cut health-care costs, reduce sick days, and boost productivity.

Which all goes to show, there's more than one way to get the job done.


  • Joe Kita

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