Tom Eblen: Standing up while you work just might make you feel better

July 16, 2012 

The hardest part of writing for me is sitting for long periods. After a recent bout with leg pain, despite sitting in a brand-name ergonomic chair, I decided to try something I had considered for years: write standing up.

I fetched an old coffee table from the basement and set it on a cabinet behind my desk. It now holds a keyboard and a computer monitor, raised to eye level by four thick books. It's not fancy, but when I get tired of sitting, I can stand and work.

Standing desks are the latest office fad, thanks in part to a series of medical studies showing that sitting too much is bad for your back, can make you sick and might even shorten your life.

Business Week reported last month that Steelcase, the office-furniture manufacturer, said sales of its standing desks are growing at four times the rate of its regular desks.

Standing desks are showing up in the offices of staid law firms and trendy companies including Facebook and Google.

Men's Health, the magazine that last year infamously proclaimed Lexington as America's most sedentary city, reports that at least half of its editors now use them. Stand-up work was even lampooned in an episode of the NBC comedy The Office.

Standing desks have been around for centuries; they were especially popular in the Victorian era with statesmen and clerks alike. Thomas Jefferson designed his own six-legged model. Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Saul Bellow all liked to write standing up.

Jim Gray used a standing desk for years at Gray Construction Co. But when he became Lexington's mayor two years ago, he decided not to bring it with him to city hall.

"I wanted to conform," he said.

In an effort to improve his leadership team's communications and efficiency, Gray created a shared office in an old first-floor ballroom at city hall, the former Lafayette Hotel. It looks like a newspaper newsroom, with everyone working side by side in pods of old metal desks — IBM relics borrowed from a Lexmark warehouse.

Gray said he didn't want to be the only one standing. It might make others uncomfortable, he thought, or make him look lordly. But a few weeks ago, the mayor couldn't stand to sit any longer. He sent for his stand-up desk.

"I didn't realize how much I had missed it," he said. "I feel like I'm more productive standing up, whether I'm writing or typing. My metabolism is better. If I sit down after lunch, I get sleepy."

Communications director Susan Straub said she likes it better now that Gray stands at his desk, because it is easier for her to see and talk to him without leaving her desk.

"But when we have school tours through here, kids want to know where the mayor sits," Straub said.

Sitting increases pressure on your lower back, and there's a lot of recent evidence that sitting too much is bad for you in other ways, too:

■ University of Missouri scientists found that it seems to shut off circulation of lipase, a fat-absorbing enzyme.

■ The British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that people who sit for prolonged periods have a higher risk of disease.

■ American Cancer Society researchers found that the benefits of frequent exercise can be negated if you spend too much of the rest of your time sitting.

■ The American Journal of Epidemiology published a study saying that sitting for more than six hours a day can make people at least 18 percent more likely to die from heart disease, obesity and diabetes than those sitting less than half that amount.

But standing too much can be bad for you, too. Alan Hedge, who researches ergonomics at Cornell University, told Time magazine this spring that prolonged standing can be tiring and hard on your circulatory system, increasing the risk of carotid atherosclerosis and varicose veins.

What all of these studies really show — aside from the fact that living will kill you one way or another — is that variety and motion are healthy. Sit some, in a good ergonomic chair. Stand some, wearing comfortable shoes. Get up and move around frequently. Variety will help you feel better, think clearer and get more done.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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