Sitting All Day? You Need to Read This Now

Last Updated Apr 25, 2011 12:02 PM EDT

A lot has been written about how sitting all day is going to shorten our lives. As James Vlahos explained in the New York Times Magazine:

This is your body on chairs: Electrical activity in the muscles drops -- "the muscles go as silent as those of a dead horse," Hamilton says -- leading to a cascade of harmful metabolic effects. Your calorie-burning rate immediately plunges to about one per minute, a third of what it would be if you got up and walked. Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, and the risk of developingType 2 diabetes rises. So does the risk of being obese. The enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides -- for "vacuuming up fat out of the bloodstream," as Hamilton puts it -- plunge, which in turn causes the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol to fall.

Sounds scary, right?

Except standing all day comes with health risks too, like increased risk of carotid atherosclerosis and varicose veins, according to Alan Hedge, Ph.D., director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University, who recommends not standing all day. Risks start to accrue the longer you stand. Plus it's not great for the millions of us with bad backs.

"Standing puts up to 50 percent more compression on the lower back than sitting back in a slight reclined position in a chair," says Hedge. Ideally some combination of sitting and standing is best.

Before you plunk down $495 for an adjustable standing desk, here are some pointers from Dr. Hedge and software blogger Gina Trapani, who blogged about her move from seated to standing desk.

  1. Do a test run. If you want to see what it's like, add a shelf to your existing desk, using Coke cans, stacks of paper or cinder blocks to raise your keyboard and computer screen. Test it out for more than a month. Research shows that two thirds of standers go back to sitting after a month.
  2. Adjust your desk height so that you are not bending your neck down too much to view your screen or your work, which can be a major source of discomfort, says Hedge. Make sure there are no sharp edges because there's a tendency to lean on the desk, which can cause a compression injury if there's a sharp edge.
  3. Be prepared to have your feet hurt at first. Trapani wrote: "The first three days were brutal, so painful I doubted the whole endeavor. By mid-day 2, I had to sit down every hour or so. I was distracted and had a hard time focusing on anything but how much my feet hurt. At night I sat on the couch with my feet elevated. I collapsed into bed totally exhausted. I never appreciated sitting as much as I did the first three days. Then, on the fourth day, it wasn't so bad. On day 5, I got lost in work for 2 hours before I thought about the fact that I was on my feet once. Now it's my new normal."
  4. Get a gel mat or the like to soften the surface you're standing on.
  5. Take breaks. If you're standing and not moving, you'd need a break at least every 20 to 30 minutes. Sit for phone calls, lunch or other breaks. If you're in it for the long haul, get a high stool, so you can sit or stand at your tall desk. As Trapani said, "I don't stand ALL the time now--I sit, stand, pace, and stretch. The difference between now and before is that I used to mostly sit. Now I mostly stand."
If a standing desk is not in your cards, there are other ways to avoid the deathly effects of sitting all day.
  • Take frequent small breaks. Get up and stretch for one to two minutes, walk down the hall to talk to a colleague rather than email her, stand up when you don't have to be tethered to your computer, like when making a phone call.
  • Eat lunch at a stand-up counter. Why sit down for lunch when you're sitting all day. Find a cafe with stool-height counters and stand while you eat.
  • Don't sit down after work to watch TV. The last thing you want to do after sitting at your desk for eight hours is to plop down in front of the TV or your home computer. Cook, go for a walk, play with your kids, or do some yoga or stretching instead.
Have you tried standing at work?
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of flickr user Plutor
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.