For those of you who spend part or all of your day sitting at a desk, have you considered that you might be living a dangerous lifestyle? The average American office worker spends five hours and 41 minutes sitting at a desk every working day. This lifestyle has been described as a day of sitting punctuated by a walk to and from the parking lot! Add to that the time we sit while driving and watching TV. The default is to sit; what if the default were to stand at a desk, instead?
•There is a clear link between how sedentary we are and a higher likelihood of weight gain. Those who get up frequently gained significantly less. Walking to another desk instead of sending an email, or getting up more often, actually made a big difference. Those at a standing desk burn, on average, 50 more calories per hour than do those who sit, and there are other positive metabolic changes as well.
•Sitting is also linked to the risk of becoming diabetic. Those who sit for long periods of time have significantly higher levels of fasting blood glucose, indicating that their cells have become less responsive to insulin. Some studies show that the amount of time spent sitting can be a more significant risk factor for diabetes than the amount of time spent in vigorous exercise. In other words, avoiding sitting might actually be more helpful than increasing exercise!
•Sitting is bad for the heart. An early study in the 1950’s demonstrated that London bus drivers who sat had far more heart attacks than bus conductors who stood. Multiple studies have since confirmed that those who sit more are at higher risk of heart failure, chest pain, and heart attack.
•Extended periods spent sitting have been linked with a higher risk of many forms of cancer, especially breast and colon, but also lung, prostate, endometrial and ovarian.
•Increases in overall mortality have been strongly correlated to sitting. A study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that sitting for more than six hours per day can make us 18% more likely to die from diabetes, heart disease and obesity than those who sit for less than three hours. Another showed that for each extra hour we spend sitting each day, the overall risk of dying over a seven-year period increases by 11%. Yet another study showed that if the average American limited his or her daily sitting time to under three hours, life expectancy would climb by two years.
These studies were careful to control for a variety of factors including diet, smoking, and weight.
Standing desks were very popular during the 18th and 19th centuries in the homes and offices of the well to do. Those who used standing desks include Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Benjamin Franklin. Modern standing desks can be raised or lowered in order to be a sitting or standing desk, and the user can ease into standing over time.
The advantages of the standing desk are impressive. Standing requires us to engage our core and back muscles continuously, it improves our flexibility, and keeps the blood flowing. Our body is able to adjust and move easily. The risk of blood clots is lowered. Standing also can alleviate back pain and other repetitive stress injuries, since these types of problems often come from not using our back enough. Mental benefits of a standing desk include an increase in focus, alertness and activity level – helping to fight off naturally occurring slumps and bouts of fatigue.
However, there are significant downsides. Standing for long periods of time can lead to back, knee, hip and foot issues. Those who stand on the job were 44% more likely to receive hospital treatment for varicose veins verses those who sat. Babies born to women who stood more than five hours per workday had lower birth weight than babies of those who stood two hours or less.
For many of us, standing desks may improve ergonomics, health, focus, mood, and productivity. Unfortunately, it’s rare to be offered this type of desk in most business environments. They are not standard, and are often more expensive. But even if a standing desk is not realistic at this time, let’s still take lessons from these studies; I encourage you to incorporate standing and walking as much as possible into your everyday lifestyle.
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
Published: June 26, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 11