First, some background information.
Lifestyle diseases, aka “diseases of affluence,” account for a massive amount of suffering and death in the U.S. The most widespread lifestyle-related disease is cardiovascular disease, which affects approximately 92 million Americans (out of a population of 321 million). Sedentary lifestyle is a key contributor to cardiovascular disease. In fact, you only need to sit still for an hour or so before your body becomes less effective at circulating blood. Here’s a great infographic showing the various ways in which chronic sitting affects health.
Is standing the solution to the sitting problem?
I’m reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with my daughter and I keep imagining the snapping Monster Book of Monsters in the form of an Aeron chair. We’d all sit less if our chairs gave us a good nip on the butt from time to time.
The desk job must have seemed like such a luxury in an era when more people worked jobs that required hard labor. The problem as we now know is that while too much physical work can wear you down, not enough physical work can also wreak havoc. It’s this sedentary havoc that is responsible for the rotten health so many Americans suffer. It’s not only giving us cardiovascular disease, but also a host of musculoskeletal ailments that arise when bodies don’t move enough. (Check out this research showing that osteoarthritis is likely a result of inactivity, not age and obesity as previously thought.)
I know this isn’t news to you. We all sit too much, even athletes and active people, hence the allure of the standing desk. There’s something pleasingly stoic about the idea of standing at your desk job. If sitting too much is the problem, surely standing is the solution. Right? Well, no. How many people do you know who quit their standing desk because it hurt their feet, back, or neck?
Two reality checks about desks
Here’s the first thing to understand about the desk conundrum: The problem isn’t the chair; it’s the amount of time you’re sitting in the chair. We tend to sit in our chairs alllll daaaaay looooong. At the breakfast table, in our cars, at our desks, in our cars again, on our sofas ... The amount of time you’re spending with your hips and knees at a 90-degree angle and your spine flexed in all the wrong places is the problem, not the chair. Look back at that infographic at the top if you want to see what happens in a body that sits too much. It’s not pretty.
The second thing to understand is that standing all day is more of the same problem: A lack of variety in the shape and movement of your body. Standing takes more energy than sitting, but standing still is, well, it’s still. It’s the stillness we need to change, not the desk.
And be honest, now. How long can you stand before you start slouching and leaning? For most people it’s not very long. You’re definitely not doing your body a favor by leaning on your desk all day.
What about the treadmill desk? It makes you move. BINGO! Right?
Eh, no. The treadmill desk is not the golden ticket, either. If you have one and you love it, by all means keep on treading. But if you’re thinking of buying one, be aware that the mechanics of walking on a treadmill aren't the same as walking on ground, so you won't get all the benefits of walking over ground. You may also exacerbate problems like pelvic floor dysfunction and knee pain. (For a thorough discussion of treadmill walking, first prepare yourself to receive some life-changing knowledge, and then go here.)
What's a desk worker to do?
If you want to maximize the value of your walking for your whole-body health, I recommend that you save your money and learn to move more instead of buying fancy treadmill desk.
I also suggest that you find a way to adjust your desk so you can change up your position throughout the day. Maybe stand for a while, maybe sit for a while, maybe intersperse your day with frequent bouts of movement.
If this is sounding good to you, let's dig into what it means to MOVE MORE at your desk job.
p.s. Please let me know when someone invents the parkour desk. THAT will be a desk worth having.