We're a sitting society, and it's sabotaging our health. I took aim at my sedentary ways by standing for 48 hours straight.
Illustration: Eddie Thomas Star Tribune
Sitting is the new smoking.
That’s the buzz ricocheting around health circles, as a growing mountain of medical research decries our national addiction to sitting on our rear ends.
As a health reporter, I’ve read the research, from the National Institutes of Health to the Mayo Clinic to the American Cancer Society, all of which warns that prolonged sitting leads to increased risks of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Not even regular exercise can undo the damage caused by such a sedentary lifestyle.
That got me to wondering, did I have what some experts called “the sitting disease”?
To find out, I decided to log my seat time for a couple of days. The results were shocking: I spend about 11 of my 16 waking hours sitting. That puts me right in the middle of the U.S. average of eight to 13 hours. Not exactly something to brag about.
So I set out to stand as much as I could for two straight days. No sitting at my desk. No sitting during meetings or meals or TV time.
To help prepare for my 48-hour standoff, I consulted with a pioneer — the man who jump-started the anti-sitting movement: Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University, a world-renowned obesity expert and among the first to use a treadmill desk.
“The body,” he said, “was meant to move.”
I asked why, if we know sitting is so bad, haven’t more people given up their chairs?
“It’s simply hard,” he said. “And the reason it’s so hard is because we have orchestrated a world where you can’t function without sitting.”
Still, I gave it a try. Here’s what I encountered when I took on the world standing up.
Breaking up with my chair
With more than 40 million Americans working in offices, the desk is the center of our seated world.
“Standing desks” have been on the market for more than a decade, but only a slim minority of workers use them. So I jury-rigged my own standing desk by putting my computer monitor on top of a cardboard box and a stack of books. It worked, but just barely.
Clearly, I needed advice from a seasoned pro. I turned to Dominic Meizo, who’s been a sit-to-stand desk user for more than a year at his office in the Hennepin County Government Center. Meizo alternates between standing and sitting throughout the day. “That perfect balance helps you leave the office feeling more refreshed,” he said. “Your muscles aren’t tense.”
He coached me to make sure I kept my arms at a 90-degree angle while standing and typing. That would help my shoulders relax, releasing the tightness in my neck, he said. He was right. After a couple hours back at my makeshift desk, my neck was fine — but my calves ached and the bottoms of my feet were sore.
There are conflicting views on whether standing for long periods is any better than sitting, said Sarah Hearn, a wellness analyst for Hennepin County. Some doctors say standing puts pressure on your lower body, raising your risk of back ailments and varicose veins. But Hearn believes the benefits of standing far outweigh the potential danger of too much sitting. Studies show that sitting for just an hour reduces by up to 90 percent the production of fat-burning enzymes.
Ditching the office chair does wonders for another body part — the brain. Standing and, better yet, being at a treadmill desk, will increase blood flow to the brain, making it easier to concentrate. In fact, a recent University of Minnesota study found that treadmill desks can boost productivity by 10 percent.