Treadmill Desks, Exercise Ball Seats, and Other Ways to Avoid Dying from Sitting

I heard that sitting at a desk all day could significantly shorten a person’s life.  Among others, Time reported on research indicating, in essence, that “lack of movement triggers really unhealthy metabolic changes,” and CNN cited studies connecting inactivity (specifically, sitting more than six hours per day) with markedly higher rates of death (due to e.g., colon cancer) during the study period.  These drawbacks arose regardless of the amount of exercise a person was getting.  That is, it seemed that excess sitting was unhealthy per se.

It was unclear what kind of activity, or how much, would be necessary to modify the situation or to break up the pattern.  Would it make a difference if the person was seated on an exercise ball?  A barstool?  A wooden crate?  In order to counteract the perils of sitting, was it necessary to stand all day?  To take a stroll every hour?  These questions did not yet seem to have been studied very carefully.  At this writing, then, it seemed advisable to review some available information and draw inferences.

Recent research had continued to indicate that, of course, people should exercise to maintain general health and to keep their weight down and their strength up.  Recommendations varied, but generally it seemed that at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise (e.g., fast walking, biking on level ground, pushing a lawn mower) per day, at least five days per week, would be the minimum for basic health.  It appeared that better results might ensue from at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, at least three times per week.  But the question at hand was not whether one should exercise for a half-hour a day; it was whether one should sit for six, eight, or more hours per day.

The problem did not seem to be that sitting was inherently bad.  The CNN article suggested that sitting would have been a valuable way of resting while remaining vigilant, in the many thousands of years of primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle during which today’s human body was shaped.  According to Malina and Little (2008, p. 376), ancient humans probably engaged in a mix of

habitual and largely intermittent activity except for long range walking, which varies in type and intensity from light to moderate but periodically vigorous.  Activities of late Paleolithic hunter-gatherers included walking (gathering, hunting, migrating), running (after wounded prey, flight), carrying (game meat, children, plants), flint knapping, tool making, meat butchering, digging (roots, tubers), dancing (recreational, ritual), playing, and others.  The pattern suggests “cross-training” in contrast to the aerobic (endurance) and resistance (strength) training models of exercise physiology and the sport sciences [citations omitted].

In other words, it would presumably be healthy to sit, now, in the ways and for the durations that would have been normal in ancient forests and woodlands, with various mixes of squatting, crouching, kneeling, and sitting on a log, for instance, or on the ground.  A person might hold such a pose for an hour or more during tribal meetings, or on a hunt.  But more commonly, one might suspect, there would be many shifts, from sitting to standing to walking or running, throughout the day.  In other words, you don’t have to spend much time around children to discover that there’s such a thing as active sitting.

The problem seemed to be that modern chairs made immobility too comfortable.  A properly designed chair, to the modern mind, would allow its user to remain pleasantly seated for hours on end, whereas the healthy solution would evidently be to design chairs so that people would feel a strong urge to stand up or at least shift position fairly often.  A BusinessWeek article going on about the S-curved human spine thus seemed beside the point.  The problem wasn’t that people had sore backs, it was that they were dying (possibly while experiencing a blessed absence of back pain).  The problem identified in the Time article was, rather, that excessive stillness would disrupt normal metabolism.  For normal metabolism, one would presumably seek normal mobility, with a mix of walking and other activities like those noted above.

This line of thought suggested that a different kind of chair (e.g., kneeling, saddle, ball) was probably not the answer.  It might help, to the extent that it would require shifts of position.  But as one became more familiar with it, no doubt the number and degree of necessary movements would decline; the health benefits at issue here would taper off somewhat.  All other things being equal, a relatively uncomfortable chair might be healthier than a comfortable one.  But ultimately, it seemed, the best chair would be one that gave its user a strong incentive to stand up fairly often, and perhaps the best use of a chair at a desk (while one was in it) would entail a constantly shifting combination of postures (e.g., sitting flatfooted, sitting on one leg, slouching, tilting back, leaning forward).

A standing or treadmill desk would probably not be a panacea.  Just as too much sitting could induce back pains not necessarily related to longevity, so also too much standing or walking could be unpleasant and might introduce issues for various other joints and tissues.

Desk workers could apparently become stronger and healthier (and might also avoid other maladies) by adding recess breaks and other aspects of play and variation into their routines.  Rather than leap directly from 11 hours a day in one’s chair to 11 hours on a treadmill, it might be advisable to experiment with a workstation offering both stand-up and sit-down options (via either two mouse-keyboard-video setups or an easily adjustable desktop height).

Stories of people who had tinkered with various workstation option inspired me to wonder about other possibilities.  Some of these were mildly amusing.  What would happen if, instead of a treadmill, I wore skates at my desk, perhaps while standing on an irregular floor?  How about standing on a teeter-totter, or on a board on a dowel rod?  A pan full of marbles?  Crushing grapes?  Riding a unicycle?  Had anyone looked into a fully recumbent workstation, complete with blankets and a soft pillow?  An aqua-portal, requiring a floatation device and a waterproof computer?  How about a mechanical desk that would periodically transform itself into some other shape, necessitating concomitant postural shifts?  Or maybe just being unemployed and/or homeless would do the trick.

I assumed that a treadmill desk would be easier than a standing desk, since walking would allow the legs to take alternate rests during each stride — especially, of course, if the treadmill was moving at the very slow pace some people recommended.  A requirement for nothing more than a slow strolling gait would presumably also open me up to less expensive treadmills — though later I realized that it would still have to be of pretty good quality, if I was going to need it to keep rolling for 10-15 hours per day.  I would also want the unit to be comfortable to stand still on, if concentration or other circumstances required me to stop walking at times.

On the other hand, a standing desk could be bad, and a treadmill would be worse, for purposes of being able to look out a window from time to time — another activity found to have healthy effects (e.g., Raanaas, Patil, & Hartig, 2011).  Depending on user height and on the angle of view, standing up on a treadmill and looking over the top of a computer monitor (or of materials on a reading stand) could leave the user with a view of nothing except sky or pavement.  I did not search for research, if any had been done, on the question of whether a user could get comparable health benefits, or the feeling of exposure to the outdoors, if s/he were instead looking at a backdrop provided by mirrors or a big-screen TV showing e.g., webcam images from outside the window, mounted on a side or back wall.

That problem could be alleviated by converting some of the user’s work into mobile forms.  For instance, students and others might be able to absorb and respond to necessary information, to some extent, by listening to recorded lectures or speaking into cellphones or voice recorders while riding, running, walking, gardening, or otherwise doing things outdoors.  Laptop computers could also facilitate the project of taking work outside, though in that case one would still be sitting (but perhaps on rocks, benches, and other surfaces promoting movement while seated).  Some kinds of meetings and other interpersonal sessions could presumably be conducted as well during a walk as in a room or at a restaurant.  A determined search for non-seated alternatives might also lead to oblique solutions, where the deskbound task would be replaced by something else — using the voice recorder or cellphone, for instance, to replace the written email.

Such modifications appeared to require creative and to some extent forced changes, not only by users but also by their workplaces, schools, and other sources of seated working expectations.  These things appeared likely to require some time (in many cases, years) to implement, though that would not necessarily be an excuse for simply allowing seat-oriented work situations to continue indefinitely.  In the meantime, it did seem that large numbers of people would be limited to relatively narrow choices, in the search for work setups that would alter the traditional pattern of spending very many hours in relatively unchanging seated positions.

I was one such person.  There were limits on what I could afford and how patient I was likely to be.  I was willing to experiment a bit, and to try alternative approaches, but I did not think I would go very far with an approach that would require more than a day or two (at most) to set up and adapt to.  It was easy enough to just go with the default situation and take my chances with colon cancer and such.

The path of least resistance appeared to lead through the active sitting search cited above.  Sitting on an exercise ball or on some other funky device seemed reasonable.  I liked to think, however, that I was already somewhat inclined in the direction of active sitting, because my own style was — at the moment when I was writing these words, for instance — to be balancing on two legs of the chair, leaning forward, and at other times to be slouching back, sitting upright, and so forth.

What I seemed to need was perhaps not so much a modification of my chair routine as an alternative that would make me stand up and perhaps move around sometimes.  This required some mental preparation.  Was I really going to spend large chunks of time — hours every day, no doubt — standing or walking while working at the computer?

I decided that this could be a healthy thing to do and, moreover, that it might be enjoyable.  It was worth trying.  The next problem was, how was I going to manage it?  Since I am tall, I had the view-of-the-pavement problem:  I would no longer be able to look up at sky or treetops.  The top of my window would prevent that.  And then there was the problem of the computer monitor.  I could probably arrange to position the monitor at a lower level — so that I would be looking slightly downward at it, thus freeing up more of a view straight ahead, out the window.  But would this give me a sore neck?  Probably not, I thought, or probably I would be able to adapt, if I didn’t overdo the angle.  But since I already had three monitors connected to two computers, and was in the habit of using them all on a fairly regular basis, would this mean that I would have to buy three more monitors, or rig up some way to raise and lower them every time I stood up or sat down?  That, I believed, was not going to work.  I was not going to fill my apartment with computer monitors, and as a practical matter would soon tire of changing their location.

The better solution, it seemed, was to have a sitting desk and a standing desk; to use the two for different purposes; and to migrate whatever work I could toward the standing desk.  This would still pose an issue of furniture clutter, unless I could figure out a way to combine the sitting and standing desks to some extent.  There was also still going to be just the one window.  But at least I could experiment with the prospect of standing up some of the time, taking that first step (so to speak) toward a possible later purchase of a treadmill.  In that scenario, I would want the standing desk to be adjustable upwards, since the treadmill would put me an estimated eight to ten inches higher in the air.  I could then just go on with my work, let some days or weeks pass, and see if I was moving more tasks to the standing desk (and would thus be likely to keep using it).

No doubt I could have sought out standing-desk options elsewhere.  For instance, I might have found a counter or other surface in a library or restaurant where I could stand for part of the day.  But what I was proposing to do, here, was to have a nearly seamless interface, where I would naturally stand up or sit down, depending on whether I needed the computer or had consciously repositioned a certain task to be done while standing.  An example would involve activities that might call for a table surface:  my computer desk was cluttered and, anyway, was not convenient for tasks like writing out things with pen and paper.  So now I was visualizing the stand-up desk as the place where, perhaps, I would naturally go whenever I wanted to hand-address an envelope, spread out some papers, open a package, or fix some broken gizmo.

As I wrote the preceding paragraph, the list of things that I could do at a stand-up desk, away from the computer monitor, began to expand.  I realized, for instance, that while it would be a hassle to relocate the desktop computer monitors up there, I certainly could open up my laptop and use that while standing, and that would be adequate for some computer activities.  It did begin to appear, in other words, that I might have enough things going on to get me to stand up with some frequency.  And if I worked at it, or created a calendar reminder, I could probably keep myself pushing the envelope, moving more tasks to the upper desk.  It looked like I was going to be able to give this whole idea a pretty good trial run.

Now I faced the question of physical layout.  Where and how was I going to position the stand-up desk?  There were all kinds of pre-packaged and do-it-yourself (DIY) ideas out there, ranging from the large cardboard box desk and a $40 shelf (and other wall-mounted approaches) all the way up to the $2,100 Executive Stand-Up Desk and beyond.  In the DIY category, I saw several approaches that involved merely stacking one cheap table on top of another, or on a shelving unit or some other preexisting furniture, and that gave me an idea.

I already had a relatively lightweight table set up next to the computer.  That table was longer than my computer desk.  It occurred to me that perhaps I could simply elevate that table over the computer desk.  The things on that table (e.g., my printer and laptop) could mostly stay there and still leave room for a handwriting workspace.  I would just need to come up with some stable footing that would raise the table.  I calculated that, if I moved the computer desk out from the wall a bit, and put the bottom side of that tabletop at eyebrow height (as I sat upright in my chair), I would be able to put my hands onto it and work on it; it would be fairly difficult for me to bang my head against it even if I did lean forward; and I would still be able to view my monitors, and much of what there was to see out my window, by either looking out from under the table or by leaning back and looking over it.  (The higher I put the table, the more it would be like a ceiling when I sat at my desk — and the less view I would have over the topside.)

In my case, this scheme called for something that would raise the height of the tabletop from its standard 29″ to about 49″.  Ideally, the height would be adjustable, to accommodate a future treadmill and also to let me play with it under trial conditions.  It seemed that I could accomplish this by buying a 10′ section of 1/2″ threaded steel rod, cutting it into four 30″ sections, and running them into horizontal pieces of wood (maybe 2″ x 2″) at top and bottom to keep them vertical.  I was fortunate in that my table’s legs were angled and had a cross piece:  it seemed that I could probably hold everything in place with a set of suitably positioned nuts and hose clamps.  (A pair of nuts, tightened against each other, would stay in place, and I could move the nuts to adjust the height.  I would want to make sure I had some nuts on each section of the rod before cutting it, so as to clear out the threads by removing the nuts after cutting.)  I figured that I would use rope or maybe some more wood to brace the rod-and-lath combination against the legs of the computer desk on each end.

UPDATE

I wrote the foregoing words in July.  Now it’s December.  And now I know why sitting is so dangerous:  in my case, at least, it is done by people who would rather sit than move, even to avoid an earthquake.  I didn’t get around to posting the foregoing words, that is, and just now went looking for them and found them in my Drafts folder.

I was looking for them because I came across a New York Times article that provided an update on the subject.  I didn’t do anything with the foregoing because I couldn’t quite arrive at a solution I liked, for getting that table up in the air.  I decided the threaded rods would be too flimsy, but didn’t have any better alternative.  But I’m working on it.  Just let me sit and think a bit . . .

[This item was previously posted elsewhere.]

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