If you work all day sitting in a chair, you’re hurting your body. All that time on our rears dangerously slows our metabolism and promotes heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. So some health-minded folks have taken to treadmill and stand-up desks, or sit/stand desks that pop up and down with a hand crank or electric mechanism. The problem is that most people who use these desks still don’t get enough exercise. By all means, look for alternatives to a lifetime of sitting, but make sure you get exercise, too.
First the case against sitting. In a 14-year study of 123,216 people, conducted by the American Cancer Society, women who sat for more than 6 hours a day were about 37 percent more likely to die during the study than those who sat for fewer than 3 hours a day. Men were 18 percent more likely to die.
So what about standing? That could strain the legs, knees, and lower back. As Alan Hedge, a design and ergonomics professor at Cornell University, has pointed out, a hundred years ago office workers stood all day and developed back problems and varicose veins.
Sit/stand arrangements give you flexibility. There are products that you place on top of an ordinary desk and special desks designed for laptops or to raise just a keyboard and separate monitor. When customers call Nick McElhiney, a certified ergonomics-assessment specialist who sells a variety of products through ErgonomicEvolution.com, his first question is how tall you are. “There’s a whole bunch of ergonomic equipment that is being misused and causing more problems,” he says. Before you invest, though, consider whether you’ll really use the standing option. In a small four-week study, office workers given sit/stand desks ended up standing instead of sitting for 8 hours a week, less than 2 hours a work-day. That’s pretty good, but the study only lasted a month. Hedge has found that most users of sit/stand products stand only for 15 minutes a day for the first month or so and then just sit.
A treadmill desk is more ambitious still. According to federal guidelines, we should be getting 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every week. Treadmill desks let you move while you work.
However, unless you’re already fit, you may not move fast enough to meet the federal guideline. In one three-month study, about 20 overweight and obese employees at a large insurance company were given treadmill desks and asked to walk on them at a comfortable pace for about 45 minutes twice a day. On average, the employees did only one session and walked slowly. They did increase the average number of steps they took in a day by about 1,000, which has potential health benefits. Again, however much you do, the key is whether you’ll keep it up.
In a longer study, over 6 months, 18 people rotated on and off treadmill desks. They walked on the treadmill on average about 3 hours a day. In this group, people lost weight and showed improvement in their cholesterol levels. In a year-long study, participants working at treadmill desks also increased their activity and lost weight.
What else can you do if you have a desk job? You can add movement into your day by standing up and stretching and lifting handweights. Walk over to a coworker rather than sending an email, take the stairs when you can, and exercise at lunch. If you drive for long stretches, stop every 2 hours.
May 06, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA