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Andrew's Stand Up Desk 30 Day Trial And Why Sitting Can Be Lethal

Stand Up Desk Intro

I was hoping a stand up desk would decrease back stiffness, improve mental clarity, and increase my productivity, and I'm happy to report that during my 30 day trial all of these things happened, far outstripping my initial hopes.

The Stand Up Desk Trail: Why Try One?

In March of 2011, after a few months of intense desk-jockeying spent working on a new book, something occurred to me: I was the an extremely athletic sedentary person.

Isn't that a contradiction? Not really. Although I average 45 to 60 minutes a day of intensive exercise to keep me in shape, and another 30-120 minutes a day doing light exercise, such as casually riding my bike to the market to buy fruit or doing my morning yoga routine, for the rest of every 24-hour cycle I'm overwhelmingly sedentary.

I usually sleep seven to nine hours a night, which means I'm mostly laying motionless. Outside of the exercise I just mentioned, my waking hours are almost totally spent sitting or laying down as well.

Running raw-food-health.net and doing various other writing projects keeps me desk-bound, and while I almost never watch TV, I do love reading and am usually sitting or laying down for that.

Moving around for a maximum of three hours per 24-hour cycle mean that only 12.5 percent of my life is spent moving, and that's if we're looking at my best days. My guess is that the average person spends significantly less time moving than I do, perhaps just 4 or 8 percent of their days.

We are not a species that evolved in a sedentary environment. Our distant past as fruit eaters in the tropics, the roughly 200,000 years we spent as hunter gatherers, and the last 10,000 years of intensive agricultural work kept up active, climbing trees, searching out food, running across the plains, and pushing plows. The inactivity we've embraced over the course of the last century -which has become   a true epidemic in the last 30 years -is completely unprecedented, and the consequences are dire.

The Stand Up Desk Trial: Why Sitting Is Lethal

Simply put, movement is critical; without it we die.

Everyone knows that blood is pumped out by the heart, but without return pumps, how does it fight gravity and get back to the torso? The body relies on the contraction of our muscles to send the used blood (now depleted of oxygen and full of metabolic waste products that need to be expelled) back for processing, an ingenious double use of resources.

But in the sedentary population blood does not circulate properly because the muscles don't contract all that much, meaning that metabolic waste pools in the extremities. During multi-hour transatlantic flights we see this played out, with people developing blood clots from not moving around at all. Many die when these clots reach their heart.

Short bouts of high-intensity athletic activities don't protect against the disease risks faced by people who spend their days seated, as convenient as that would be. Studies have shown that regardless of the amount of time you spend at the gym, the more hours you spend sitting, the more likely you are to develop cancer (1), for instance, but that's just the beginning.

The more time your butt in a chair, the more likely you are to develop heart disease and metabolic problems, put on excess weight, live a shorter life, and develop various psychological and psychosocial problems, such as depression (2), (3).

Many bouts of low-intensity, meandering-style activity, such as you'd experience at a standing desk while occasionally stretching and pacing about, seems to be be more beneficial in the long run than a few intense exercise sessions. In other words, total time spent sitting is a bigger problem than not enough intense exercise (1). 

One interesting Australian study figured out that for each hour participants spent watching TV per day, their chance of death from all causes rose a staggering 11 percent.  This figure applies even after adjusting for age, sex, education, smoking, hypertension, waist circumference, body-mass index, glucose tolerance status, and total time spent exercising (4).

We have to put this in perspective, of course. Dietary factors, such as meat, dairy, and alcohol consumption, still cause the lion's share of the diseases that most westerners suffer form, such as heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and diabetes. Fruits and vegetables are hands down the best bulwark against disease and aging, which is why a healthy raw food diet is so powerful. 

Yet a chair-bound life is still a danger we should all be concerned about.

The Stand Up Desk Trial: The Rest Of The Body

Outside of disease, the function of the rest of our bodies degrades when we don't move.

When you sit, electrical activity in the muscles plunges to virtually nothing, leading to a cascade of negative metabolic effects. Your calorie-burning rate immediately drops to about one per minute, a third of what it would be if you were walking. Insulin effectiveness drops dramatically within a single day of being sedentary, and the enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides decrease, which in turn causes levels of good HDL cholesterol to fall (5).

Many people find that they eventually develop back problems from sitting so much.  Although I learned a long time ago that a yoga routine was needed to keep my troublesome back in line, after hours of sitting it still stiffens up and I find it unpleasant to bend or twist.

I've also found computer work makes me mentally hazy after a few hours, a problem I've long associated with concentrating on my work for too long. But then I started to think about how clear my mind is when I exercise and wondered if it was actually less of a computer problem and more of a lack of movement and circulation problem.

With all this in mind, I realized that there was no reason why I Had to sit while I was working, so I decided to try a standing desk for a 30 day trial to see how I liked it.

The Stand Up Desk: The Minimalist Trial

Stand Up Desk FridgeAs is my nature, I decided to just dive into the project, replacing all of my seated computer time, which amounted to 4-10 hours a day, with standing computer time. I figured from the planning stage that I might have some soreness and gave myself permission to take a few hours off per day if I was really suffering during the adjustment period.

Since I was temporarily staying in a furnished apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I had no desire to splurge on a proper standing desk I may not have even liked, I decided to just make do with what I had on hand.

My apartment came equipped with a three-quarters-size fridge, the top of which just happened to be at the same height as my elbows, so I decided to commandeer it as my trial standing desk.

I had no gel standing pads, which I've seen recommended as an accompaniment to standing desks, and usually just stood barefoot on the tile floor in front of the fridge.

I also experimented with putting boxes on top of counter tops to raise my laptop to the right level, which worked relatively well, but not as well as the fridge setup.

Stand Up Desk Trial: The Results

After 30 days of standing up for all of my computer time I don't think I'll ever want to go back to a sitting-predominated work routine. 

The improvements to my mind and body have been fairly substantial, and I found the adjustment to be easy.

After about a week of mild soreness in the legs and feet I had no more problems, but I imagine a less fit or older person would have a longer adjustment period.

Although I sometimes hear sales clerks complain about standing on hard floors for their entire work day, after having no problem standing on a tile floor for hours, I actually think their problem must be that they're using shoes with raised heels that also do not allow for the proper splaying of the foot, an issue that causes major injury problems for runners.

Although at the outset I imagined myself just standing still all day, I actually ended up moving around a lot. I was regularly shifting my weight from foot to foot and often had a kind of continuous sway from side to side going on.

Instead of staying still when I was trying to figure out how to formulate a sentence, I'd walk away from my desk and pace a time or two around the room before returning to type some more.

Assuming an eight-hour work day and 90 minutes of exercise, I'm now moving for 39.5 percent of my day, up from 12.5, a pretty impressive change.

Mental Clarity

There's no question that many of the concentration problems I once associated with long work sessions are actually caused by lack of movement. I find that while standing I can keep working with optimal clarity for almost twice the time I used to, which has lead to a nice gain in productivity. I think the "microbreaks," of walking away from my computer to pace and think also kept me from getting mentally worn out.

Even later on when I'm sitting or laying down, my mind seems more positive and energetic. I also seem to be having more good ideas. That may be coincidental, but inactivity researcher James Levine doesn't think so. He's on a personal quest against what he calls the chair-based lifestyle, and believes our work environments are stifling us.

“Go into cubeland in a tightly controlled corporate environment and you immediately sense that there is a malaise about being tied behind a computer screen seated all day," he said. "The soul of the nation is sapped, and now it’s time for the soul of the nation to rise (5).”

-Inactivity researcher Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic

The Back and Body

Not only did the back stiffness brought about by sitting disappear at my stand up desk, but the rest of my body remained loose and warmed up for virtually the entire work day, allowing me to easily transition into other activities.

Stand Up Desk BackachePreviously I would never want to move around much after a few hours of seated work because I was feeling stiff and sluggish, but the stand up desk keeps my muscles continuously warmed up.

I began experimenting with spending a few minutes during every hour of work pumping out body-weight exercises, or doing a bit of stretching. The switch between the various activities was smooth and comfortable, with no warm up necessary.

One physical issue I did notice was that my heels would sometimes get sore, so I started experimenting with different standing postures, shifting my weight and spine around. I recalled that while attending Dr. Doug Graham's Health and Fitness Week in 2009 Doug taught a session on proper walking posture, where he made the point that we're more balanced and steady when our butt sticks out in back of us a bit. I figured I'd try this for standing. This posture shifted the weight off my heels and into my forefeet, ending the heel soreness. Since ram-rod straightness is my default, I've had to spend some time adapting, but so far it hasn't been a big problem.

One completely unexpected benefit has been improved sleep. I've always had a hard time falling asleep at night, but I seem to drift off a lot quicker since I've been doing this trial.

Stand Up Desk Trial: Giving It A Shot

While I understand that the majority of people are not self employed and probably have their office furniture dictated by their company, you can can still give this a shot. To try it out, you might want to use a file cabinet or just put some boxes on top of your desk to boost up your computer.

If you're still liking it after a few weeks, you can always ask your boss for a standing desk of some kind. You can cite back pain and productivity gains as your reasons. Many companies have a written policy of accommodating the physical needs of their workers, so you might want to check out your employee handbook. Back problems are generally considered pretty legitimate. 

Stand Up Desk Trial: The Selection

Standing Desk ComputerAlthough I'm currently enjoying my vagabond lifestyle, when I next settle down I'll be sure to get an actual standing desk. Unfortunately, most standing desks tend to be on the expensive side.

Geek Desks, for instance, a brand of standing desks aimed at tech professionals that adjusts to your height with a motor and allows the desk to sink down so you can use a chair, start at $750. The Fredrik stand up desk stocked by Ikea doesn't have a motor, but costs a more reasonable $149. If you don't want to spend a lot of money, you may be able to pick up a second-hand drafting or artists table off craigslist. While these might not be labeled as stand up desk, artists and drafts people often use them in this manner. Some are height adjustable or have tilting tops to accommodate various heights. 

Stand Up Desk Trial: Following Up

Enjoyed using a stand up desk? Try other 30-day trials to improve your life.

Get on a healthy raw food diet.

Check out other important lifestyle changes you can make to improve your health.

Standing Desk Trial: Sources

1) Patel AV, Bernstein L, Deka A, Feigelson HS, Campbell PT, Gapstur SM, Colditz GA, Thun MJ. Leisure time spent sitting in relation to total mortality in a prospective cohort of US adults. Am J Epidemiol 2010;172:419–429
2) Patten SB, Williams JV, Lavorato DH, Eliasziw M. A longitudinal community study of major depression and physical activity. Gen Hosp Psychiatry 2009;31:571–575 CrossRefMedline
3) Sund AM, Larsson B, Wichstrom L. Role of physical and sedentary activities in the development of depressive symptoms in early adolescence. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 1 April 2010
4) Dunstan, D.W. Television Viewing Time and Mortality Circulation. 2010 Jan 26;121(3):384-91. Epub 2010 Jan 11.
5) VLAHOS, James. Is Sitting A Lethal Activity? The New York Times. April 14, 2011

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