With CNN broadcasting headlines like “Sitting Will Kill You, Even if You Exercise,” it’s no wonder standing desks have become popular office furniture. Why is sitting so bad, though? And is the alternative—standing for eight hours—really feasible?
As someone who spends a lot of time and energy focused on doing things to keep my body healthy, I have to admit, I’m rather unnerved by the thought that I’m doing serious damage to my body just from passively sitting at the office. This week I’m on a mission to learn more about this sitting versus standing debate as part of a broader goal of designing a workspace that allows me to be my most productive and least cranky self. Or simply put, to go one week without sitting at my desk chair.
So in case you’re a little late to the game, here’s a little background on why scientists and yogis alike are bugging out about you spending eight hours on your butt:
1. It’s bad for your muscles, bones, and is linked to chronic illness.
Muscles: When you’re sitting, your muscles aren’t doing anything besides tightening up. In fact, because most of us slouch forward with bad posture, we’re chronically overextending our neck and back, the reason for your sore lower back and stiff neck.
Bones: In order to grow thicker, denser, and stronger, your bones need you to engage in weight bearing activities like walking, running, and lifting weights. Scientists contribute the recent surge in osteoporosis in large part to our lack of activity. Our spine is particularly bothered by our sitting habits. When we move, soft discs between vertebrae expand and contract like sponges, soaking up fresh blood and nutrients. But when we sit for a long time, discs are squashed unevenly. Collagen hardens around tendons and ligaments, causing an inflexible spine.
2. When you’re sitting, you’re not being active, thereby increasing your risk for chronic disease.
Muscles burn less fat and blood flows more sluggishly during a long sit, allowing fatty acids to more easily clog the heart. Prolonged sitting has been linked to high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, and people with the most sedentary time are more than twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease as those with the least. Studies have linked sitting to a greater risk for colon, breast and endometrial cancers. The reason is unclear, but one theory is that excess insulin encourages cell growth. Another is that regular movement boosts natural antioxidants that kill cell-damaging— and potentially cancer-causing — free radicals.
Enough of that science mumbo jumbo, you want to know what it felt like to ditch the chair. Knowing I’d spend too much time complaining about standing rather than getting anything done, I decided to compromise by alternating between standing and sitting on an exercise ball. Why an exercise ball? A $15.99 exercise ball fit into my budget much more easily than a $699 Swopper Stool or any of the new fancy “motion chairs” currently blowing up on the market.
In my experience, the best part of sitting on an exercise ball and standing was that I wasn’t completely still for hours on end. By moving around on the ball or randomly bouncing on my toes, I was keeping my body from getting stiff. Rather than the normal sluggish feeling I usually experienced around 11am and 3pm, I felt a little more energized and ready to take on tasks. You know those moments when you’re at your desk and you take a big sigh and put your head in your hands? Instead, I found myself rolling my ball forward and taking a deep backbend, essentially, creating the same effect of letting the blood flow to my head, but with an added back stretch component.
Under normal circumstances when I lose focus and my body/mind are craving a change in some capacity, I get up to use the restroom or grab a snack, but when I’m standing or sitting on the ball, I find myself engaging in a lot more random stretching. From back bends to hip openers and hamstring stretches, I was able to honor my body with its stretch requests because doing so didn’t mean pausing my work to get out of my chair. It’s as if I’ve incorporated a lot more mini breaks into my routine. In terms of productivity, it seems to be a wash—I’m generally more focused when I’m working, but am taking more of these mini head clearing moments.
Imagine walking into the office at 8am pre-coffee and just seeing an exercise ball at your desk. In that moment where all you want to do is plop down, sip on your coffee, and begin the grind, you’re forced to either sit on a stupid ball or remain standing. Although to be perfectly honest—it was more of a mental hurdle than a real obstacle—once I sucked it up and just began, I didn’t really have any qualms.
My biggest concern, however, is that I have noticed some soreness in my upper back. Different from the lower back stiffness I usually feel from sitting for long periods of time, I’m leaving the office with a stiff upper back. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what’s going on here, but my hunch (pun definitely intended) is that the positioning of the ball and my computer is causing me to slouch and roll my shoulders forward. Surely, I can fix this with a little more conscious effort of maintaining a better posture.
So what am I going to do next week?
Your workspace is a reflection of what you hope to achieve in the eight hours you’re in the office, and that should vary person to person. If I’m coming in at 8am with a foggy mind needing to review data-heavy digital marketing trends, you better believe I want a sturdy and supportive chair to facilitate my work. On the other hand, if I’m tasked with creating a clever campaign for a new client and am still in the idea generation phase, literally bouncing around on a ball will give my mind and body more freedom to explore whatever pops into my head.
Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
As absurd as it may seem to ditch my desk chair for an entire week, it’s equally absurd that we’ve normalized sitting down for eight hours/day, half of our waking hours. Our bodies weren’t meant to do anything for eight hours without stopping (besides sleep). We are not automatons. As you think about that CNN headline and how it applies to your own working habits, consider the findings of scientists and medical professionals, but you should also weigh what your mind and body are telling you to find the balance that makes you your best self for the task at hand.