News you should not take sitting down

4 Jul

It’s not the prettiest to look at, but the improvised stand-up desk allowed columnist Geoff Meeker to see if it is practical and comfortable to write while standing up. (Scott Meeker photo)

July 4, 2011

By Geoff Meeker

It’s a news story that made me sit up and pay attention.

Last week, a report was released claiming that sitting too much will shorten your life. And this was no fringe study with a small sample size. Researchers at the American Cancer Society studied the health outcomes of more than 120,000 people, over a 14-year period.

They found that women who sit for more than six hours a day were 40 percent more likely to die during the course of the study, than those who sat fewer than three hours per day. Men were 20 percent more likely to die.

This is not the first research project to reach this conclusion, however. Other studies have found that conditions like cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and depression are exacerbated by sitting for extended periods of time.

The latest study also offered the rather discouraging conclusion that the damage caused by sitting for extended periods cannot be undone by exercising later that day. You really need to sit less if you want to protect your health.

That’s pretty sobering news, if you work at a desk all day, then go home and watch TV all night. Such a lifestyle, common though it may be, is supposedly a recipe for disaster.

Within five minutes of reading the article, I was doing a Google search – still sitting, I’m afraid – for devices that allow you to exercise while working. There’s a great variety of such things, from treadmills to stationary cycles, but I’m really not sure how practical this would be. The movement of my legs and torso would probably cause me to make even more typos than I do now.

One option that seems halfway plausible is a stand-up desk. Physical movement is limited, but at least I wouldn’t be sitting down. Heck, it evens burns calories – not a lot more than sitting, but over the course of an eight-hour workday, it can add up.

There’s an extremely wide variety of stand-up desks available online, ranging in price from $175 to $1000, and more. But what’s the point of buying even a cheap one if you’ll never use it?

I did browse some reviews by others who had tried them, and many were surprisingly positive. Others, not so much. It all boils down to a matter of personal preference and comfort.

I wanted to try out a stand-up desk for myself, without buying one. So I made my own. No, it’s nothing permanent. And I would never submit it for an industrial design award, though I do think it would score a couple of points for innovation.

I began by looking around the house for an extension that I could place on my existing desk. Almost immediately, I found the perfect apparatus: an old wooden shelf for the storage of vinyl LPs. I cleared a space, laid the wooden box face down on my desk, and covered it with a soft towel. The height from the floor was 44 inches – same as some of the fancy desks I had browsed online.

I positioned the keyboard and computer on top, and placed a thick “anti-fatigue” rubber mat on the floor. There is no way I could stand up that long without being extremely kind to my feet.

My improvised stand-up desk has been operational for the last 36 hours. I have transcribed two interviews, written two blog entries and composed this column. I also conducted online research, for the column and blogs. And I have noticed a surprising side effect: increased productivity. I work faster standing up, and spend less time browsing Facebook, reading blogs, and so on. I am more focused and motivated to just get the job done. They say the Queen conducts most of her meetings standing up, and now I can see why.

Working is comfortable enough, because my forearms rest fully on the typing platform, eliminating any strain. There’s been some pain in the lower back, and my legs are exhausted at the end of the day. But I can adjust to this. I have been managing discomfort by shuffling from foot to foot, and occasionally leaning on my desk. I still take “refresh” walks around the house, but not nearly as many as I did when sitting. This too, has enhanced productivity.

There just may be a stand-up desk in my future. If you’re thinking the same thing, I suggest improvising a tester unit first, to see if it works for you. Be sure to get the height right, and don’t forget that most important ingredient: a good rubber mat, or a very comfortable pair of shoes.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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