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.
By the end of the workday, my legs were tired, but my mind was fully awake. It seemed like a fair trade.
Who will stand with me?
Typically, the only person standing at a meeting is the boss.
That’s starting to change. At offices like Salo, a Minneapolis financial staffing firm, standing meetings are the norm (as are treadmill desks). A bonus: Standing meetings tend to be shorter than sitting ones.
At my office, we sit.
During a recent afternoon meeting, my co-workers entered the conference room and one by one took their seats. I remained standing. My co-workers looked puzzled.
“Do you have back problems?” one of them asked.
“Are you presenting something?” another said.
I just preferred to stand, I told them. There was awkward silence. I felt my face flush. Standing alone was embarrassing. But why?
Sitting tends to equalize people, explained Hamline University business professor Rob Routhieaux, an expert in group dynamics. “If someone were to stand up in a meeting and everybody else was sitting down, a lot of people would interpret that as intimidating behavior,” he said.
Being the lone stander in a group also breaks social norms and, Routhieaux explained, most people don’t like to break social norms.
Back at my meeting, one of my colleagues surprised me. “I’ll stand,” she said, rising from her chair.
We stood in solidarity for the rest of the 45-minute meeting. Were we the start of a standing revolution in our office?
Driven to stand
Fact: Unless you’re Fred Flintstone, it’s nearly impossible to stand and drive a car. I took the bus.
This might sound silly to regular riders (who make up just 5 percent of the U.S. population), but that was a challenge for me. I had to wake up an hour earlier, stand at the bus stop in frigid weather and navigate the routes in and out of the suburbs.
My car-free resolve lasted only a few hours. I landed a critical interview in St. Paul and needed to get there in a flash. Instead of busing it, I took a company car — and tried not to think about my abs getting mushy on the drive.
Still, I was convinced that the bus can be a key weapon in my war on sitting. Levine agreed. “This is all about living in a more dynamic and joyous way,” he said. “The fact that you could see using the bus as part of your daily routine to me is kind of the answer.”
The walking, the waiting, and the standing while riding all contribute to a more active lifestyle, Levine said.
Want to draw attention to yourself? Stay standing in a sit-down restaurant.
I did that.
On both days of my standing experiment, I went to lunch with a buddy in the Minneapolis skyways. They sat, I stood.
My first lunch date thought I was ridiculous. She tried several times to get me to sit down because she felt like I was about to bolt at any moment. Conversation was difficult. We ended up eating quickly.
At a crowded skyway restaurant the next day, my lunch companion scanned the room looking for an empty table. She spotted an opening at the bar and made a beeline. We stood together and enjoyed our lunch and our conversation.
I was grateful to be able to stand — without standing out.
Converting a couch potato
At home, it didn’t feel odd to stand while I was cooking — or eating. But watching TV? That’s not something most of us do on our feet. And we do a lot of it.
This is a couch potato nation, after all, with Americans spending an average of three hours a day in front of the tube. The relatively new ability to binge-watch hasn’t helped. And I’ll admit it, I’m a binger. My latest favorite is FX’s spy drama “The Americans.”
After eating dinner, I fired up my iPad and stood in the living room, cradling the device in my arms. I lasted one episode before I gave up and flopped on the couch.
I was physically tired and I felt like I’d given standing binge-watching a good shot.
Besides, I knew my anti-sitting experiment was taking things to the extreme. No one would — or should — stand all the time. But those 48 hours made me hyper-aware of what a chair-centric world we live in and how difficult it is to fight the urge to sit down.
Ever hopeful, Levine believes that more people will start taking a stand for their health.
“What we find is that when people become more active during their workday, they also become more active in their leisure time,” he said.
But he recommends starting slow. Get up from your desk once an hour, for example.
Once you’ve committed to overcoming the sitting disease, Levine says, it’s only a matter of time before your need to move washes into all aspects of your life.
And he’s right. I take regular standing breaks now and I keep that cardboard box nearby. While I’ve been sitting at meetings, I plan to stage another uprising soon. The lone co-worker who stood with me has suggested a walking meeting.
You might say we’re rising to the occasion.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488