If sitting is a deadly disease and simply standing up is the cure, what are you supposed to do when you are at work? The average person in the U.S. sits for six or more hours a day, not including sitting at work. If your job requires work at a computer or desk, chances are good you are sitting down for half of your day. With a few changes to your work style and office environment, it’s possible to get more exercise during the day.
The first change won’t get you all the way vertical but can bring more movement and activity into your day. Portable pedaling devices are small and easily concealed under your desk, but the best news is that they work to promote more activity for a mainly sedentary workforce.
Researchers at the University of Iowa wanted to see if there were measurable benefits to portable pedals in terms of health. After installing private pedaling devices for 27 employees for a 16-week period, the study monitored pedaling activity while also sending reminder emails three times a week, encouraging other types of easy, daily movement. Participants averaged 50 minutes a day of pedaling and reported weight loss, fewer sick days, and improvements in focus and concentration.
Even more encouraging is the fact that 70% of study participants chose to keep their pedalers after the study concluded. Lucas Carr, assistant professor of health and human physiology and member of the Obesity Research and Education Initiative at the UI, was encouraged not just by the measurable health benefits but also by the apparent ease and sustainability of this simple work fix, saying:
“We are really looking to identify sustainable solutions. That’s what we are working towards — how do we help people engage in healthy behaviors that can be sustained over the long term.”
Another study from the University of Iowa looked at a more active option for the office: the sit-stand desk. This type of desk allows the user to work either standing or sitting with ease. Dr. Lucas Carr, the same doctor from the portable pedaling study, wanted to examine not only how much people used their sit-stand desk and the effects but also the long-term patterns of use of these types of alternative desks.
The sit-stand study enlisted 69 office workers, mostly women, 31 of whom were using sit-stand desks. On average, the sit-stand office workers burned more calories than their seated counterparts, but there were no statistically significant differences in the two groups with regard to weight, percent body fat, blood pressure, and heart rate.
With the average office worker sitting more than 80% of their day and sedentary jobs increasing 83% since 1960, Carr believes that this study is an important first step in the research as to the benefits of sit-stand desks, noting:
“It is possible that standing for an hour more each day just simply doesn’t translate to significant cardiometabolic health risk differences. It might be that it takes several years for standing to provide enough stimulus to see between group differences. It is also possible that this study was too small to detect a difference. The message here is that we need to do more research to determine the true health benefits of replacing sitting with standing.”
The most active of the options, treadmill desks take standing a step further (pun intended). These desks offer workers a fixed workstation with a variable speed treadmill. Today’s seated workers not only experience weight gain and associated health problems. They also have a tendency towards neck, back, and shoulder pain. This is a direct result of hunching over at a desk and staring at a computer.
Julie Côté, a kinesiology researcher who teaches at McGill University, asked volunteers to complete a 90-minute typing task while either walking or sitting. They found that the muscles in the back and neck worked slightly less but in a different way when the study participants were walking, a potentially helpful finding that indicates treadmill desks may help alleviate common back and neck problems. Côté compares office workers and the ways they use their bodies (or not) to athletes, citing similarities in the consequences of misuse, saying:
“Whether you’re a computer worker or a middle-distance runner, injuries happen when you tense a particular muscle or group of muscles for too long, and the blood can`t flow into the region as it should and regenerate the muscles. Bodies are made to move.”
Finally, if thinking about standing all day long makes your feet ache, one easy way to start is to replace your chair with a stability ball. These heavy-duty balls require you to keep your core engaged to stay upright and balanced, improving posture and, in some cases, relieving low back pain that can occur after a day in an office chair.
Although they don’t increase standing time, they do increase the amount of muscle energy you need to expend throughout the day. Any additional activity is a positive step in the right direction.
Which of these options might be best for you? The answer may depend on your current level of fitness and how much money you are able to spend.
Stability balls are an affordable experiment, ranging in price from $20 to $100. Portable pedal exercisers can also be found in that price range, with the high-priced models offering more features and stability. Sit-stand desks might be a good solution for those who want to decrease the amount they sit but are not quite ready commit. Sit-stand desks and treadmill desks will begin to get expensive as you add features and if you choose higher-end materials. There are, however, plenty of do-it-yourself options if you want to give the sit-stand desk a try without spending too much.
Regardless of which option you choose, the message is clear: stand up and move for better health. What changes will you make to your office routine?