Many of us spend up to 12 hours a day sitting looking at computers or watching television. A crazy number that’s actually backed by university research. If you then throw in the seven hours we spend sleeping then that adds up to a remarkable 19 hours a day being sedentary.
Sitting down, especially at a laptop, as much as this is clearly bad for us and some studies suggest that those who sit all day live around two years less than those who are more active. Even if you exercise on a regular basis that may not be enough. There is mounting evidence that exercise will not undo the damage done by prolonged sitting. Our technology has made us the most sedentary humans in history.
So why is sitting so damaging? One thing it does is change the way our bodies deal with sugar. When you eat, your body breaks down the food into glucose, which is then transported in the blood to other cells.
Glucose is an essential fuel but persistently high levels increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Your pancreas produces the hormone insulin to help get your glucose levels back down to normal, but how efficiently your body does that is affected by how physically active you are. Prolonged sitting has not only been linked to problems with blood glucose control, but also a sharp reduction in the activity of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which breaks down blood fats and makes them available as a fuel to the muscles. This reduction in enzyme activity leads to raised levels of triglycerides and fats in the blood, increasing the risk of heart disease.
Standing while you are working may seem rather odd, but it is a practice with a long tradition. Winston Churchill wrote while working at a special standing desk, as did Ernest Hemingway and Benjamin Franklin.
Evidence that standing up is good for you goes back to at least the 1950s when a study showed that bus conductors who stood had around half the risk of developing heart disease of the bus drivers who sat. Likewise, the Chester researchers noticed that blood glucose levels fell back to normal levels after a meal far more quickly on the days when the volunteers stood than when they sat.
There was also evidence, from heart rate monitors the volunteers were wearing, that by standing they were burning more calories. “If we look at the heart rates,” John Buckley explains, “we can see they are quite a lot higher actually – on average around 10 beats per minute higher and that makes a difference of about 0.7 of a calorie per minute.” This adds up to about 50 calories an hour which is 750 calories burnt if you stand for three hours a day for five days a week. Over the course of a year this would add up to about 30,000 extra calories which is around 8lb of fat; the equivalent of running about 10 marathons a year!
Dr Buckley thinks that although going out and doing exercise offers many proven benefits, our bodies also need the constant but subtle increase in muscle activity that standing provides; simple movement helps us to keep our blood sugar under control.
And if you want more reason to stand up, recent biomedical research as shown that people who sit for the majority of the workday are 54% more likely to die of a heart attack and have 2-3x the rate of heart disease, diabetes and obesity and sitters have good cholesterol levels (HDL) 22% lower than those who stand.
If you sit for more than 6 hours a day you are 40% likelier to die within fifteen years than people who sit less than 3 hours. Researchers are now citing sitting as the next smoking:
When you stand up, the pelvis is in a neutral position and the postural muscles help keep the spine in a natural S shape:
However standing (without moving) all day has been shown to increases the risk of carotid atherosclerosis (by a factor of nine to be precise). That’s because of the additional load that’s put on the circulatory system and it also increases the risk of varicose veins. Some health experts recommend adjusting between standing and sitting throughout the day. I go further and do 1/3 standing, 1/3 sitting and 1/3 kneeling.
Before we learn how to stand working up we first need to understand what neutral looks and feels like. I’m right handed and for years in my lazy, employed mindset, I had been leaning on my left arm at desks / tables and using my right arm on the trackpad / mouse.
When I stood up my right shoulder was folded forward so my hand was in front of my right thigh rather than to the side. My shoulders were tilted to the left (right shoulder raised higher) and my left arm, well that was kind of hanging loose out of the socket. This was my normal position for years. It also meant that I couldn’t actually reach anything out in front of me with my right arm!
Your muscles and fascia will tighten and eventually lock up around this ‘new normal’ position so that even if you wanted to get your shoulders back (with arms extended) you can’t as your pec minor wont let you (we’ll attack that sucker later in chapter 4). Take a look at yourself in the mirror. Notice where your hands sit – chances are they are not hanging by your sides.
So how to stand working up?
Most home standing desks only have a single level where you place your screen and sit your keyboard & mouse. This is better than sitting but will kill your arms holding them that high all day.
You need two different levels and you actually need to raise the mouse slightly higher than the keyboard as when you swing your elbow out to the side (external rotation) you will notice the natural hand position is higher than when your arms are folded inside when typing (internal rotation – arms inside of elbows).
I also angle the keyboard so that wrists are relaxed / neutral and you don’t have to drop your head so far to see the keys. Make sure your feet are pointed forward and that your glutes (butt) are turned on to prevent your pelvis from tilting back and your lower back overextending into a ‘swayback’ position.
Business Insider wrote of the evidence that standing desks make you more 10% more productive and give you higher energy levels, improved concentration and fewer headaches. It’s certainly something that Steven Yu from the successful kickstarter campaign which raised a staggering $649,244 is trying to encourage with standdesk.co.
Standing to work will feel odd and probably tiring for a good week. Keep at it and you’ll start to feel less tired than sitting all day. The bonus is that you’ll potentially live longer too.