How and Why You Should Stop Folding Your Meat-husk in Half

PEBAAFBy now you’ve no doubt noticed the fusillade of articles (or podcasts, ahem) decrying chairs as a cancer on Western Civilization. We spend so much time in chairs, and yet they are sucking the life-force right out of you, no matter what your fitness activity level; laying low your metabolic rate and squeezing vitality directly from your ass. As near as I can tell.

Do not despair. I’m going to describe to you two reasons to stop folding your meat-husk in half: one, because it’s easier than you think to ditch the chair, and two, because I think you’ll want to anyways, regardless of the supposed health benefits.

This idea goes back to a 2005 article in Science, and has recently picked up a lot of steam in the New York Times (Stand Up While You Read This) and Businessweek (Your Office Chair Is Killing You). That’s a common theme, the “killing-you” part. Lately it’s this infographic: Sitting Is Killing You, which has hip, easy-to-digest visually-assisted terrorpoints like: sitting 6+ hours a day makes you up to 40% likelier to die within 15 years than someone who sits less than 3, regardless of exercise. And it makes you fat, and your circulation and all kinds of other stuff basically collapses when you sit… and, and, and. Suddenly this thing that has been perfectly acceptable all of your life, something as basic as sitting in a chair, is going to do you in. You may as well sit on a spike, they say.

Well, fuck.

Here’s the thing: there are chairs everywhere. They are impossible to avoid, in practically any first-world social situation or office-oriented job, at the very least. You can’t get away from it. You try standing at a meeting, or at a social dinner, and see how far that gets you. It’s actually somewhat taboo socially to hover. So reading all of these things about the newfound dangers of sitting invokes a kind of existential dread, deep in the geek forebrain. It’s not like you’re going to use computers any less, let’s be honest. That is not on the table. So, what? You mitigate, do harm reduction. This is where you look into sit-stand desks.

Groan. Ok, I know, not feasible in a lot of places. Right now if you asked your employer for one of these you’d probably need the backing of some HR policy that lets you ask for it, otherwise it’s probably not going to happen. But you can get one of these desks for your home, or modify your existing desk to standing height, and at least remove that time you spend there, from your total time spent sitting per day. Reduction.

All of this, you may well have already known. I’m not here to re-hash what those articles above have already expressed so eloquently and frighteningly. And you can do your own research into what would work best for yourself.

The reason I wrote this isn’t just because of of all that. I think it’s actually a better way to use computers. Not just because it’s healthier, but actually more interesting. If you like spending a lot of time on the net, or working in front of screens and keyboards – and I know you do –  then it’s worthwhile to explore exactly how we do that.

Now, when you really dig deep down into this whole chair thing, it quickly becomes apparent that the idea is to not actually switch entirely to sitting or standing, but to find a mix of the two, to add more movement overall. The original Science article pointed it out in that stark, Science-y way they do:

“What fascinates me is that humans evolved over 1.5 million years entirely on the ability to walk and move. And literally 150 years ago, 90% of human endeavor was still agricultural. In a tiny speck of time we’ve become chair-sentenced,” Levine says.

Yep, ok. That’s true. Do you recall all those times when you tried to fold your legs into some weird contortion on your office chair, or sat some bizarre way, just to shift a bit? That’s your legs trying to get some circulation back.

Moreover, if you happen to be male, there’s quite a bit of research that suggests we actually think better, concentrate better, when some kind of bodily movement, even small amounts, is involved. Fidgeting is related to thinking.

You will easily fill your normal sitting quotient for the day. None of us are going to throw out our couches. I’ve found it takes only a couple of weeks at most to add more standing to the normal routine, and let your legs acclimatize. Then you don’t even think about standing while you work.

(If you tend to use a laptop, your best friend are those standing-height circular tables you can find in many a Starbucks, or side-counters. They tend to be the last tables people want anyways so it’s usually not hard to find one.)

There are some key things to keep in mind, should you try and set up a standing workspace for yourself:

  • you need something to stand on, a fairly thick mat made for this purpose; it is essential to not screw up your legs
  • having a raised footrest, similar to a bar-rail in height, in front of your standing position (under the desk) makes a big difference to allow you to stretch your legs differently while still working
  • don’t overdo it at first

That’s it.

Think of it this way: instead of working like this…

Ye Olde Scribe

… we need to be more like this:

Recognizing yo' ass

Are you picking up what I am putting down?

I’ve been using computers since I was a stumpy little biped, going on 27 years now. I have perched, mangled my legs, contorted into practically every seated position there is. I have explored the universe of bad posture afforded by desktops and mined the depths of C-shaped spines and even weirder possibilities afforded later by laptops and now tablets. After using the sit/stand desk for these last months, I don’t want to sit less – I want to move around more. I want to actually take older computers and scatter then strategically around my office, assigning applications to actual workspaces, like email and music in one corner, and Adobe stuff on the main desk, and Skype somewhere else… forcing me to take short 2-3 steps around my office to access certain functions. Now that I’m actually on my feet it’s strangely liberating. You tend to have less of a mid-afternoon slump in energy, and somehow the mind is less foggy. When I first started this whole experiment I did it just because I had bought the desk (on sale!) and thought I had to in order to maybe not die a little earlier. (Also, I already hated my chair. It’s a piece of crap. I suspect they all are, in some way or another.)

Now I feel like I’m actually walking up to a proper computer setup from the future, from 2011, when I walk up to my desk. It’s a strange feeling of command, to work in this manner. You’re always at a slight disadvantage when you are seated, always being carried in some way. Standing just feels more… correct.

p.s. Also this. Did you know that could fucking happen?

 


Ryan Hewson

2 comments

I’ve always preferred standing, yet I never even once thought of coming up with a workable solution for my workspace. Your article has now changed all that. Thanks Ryan! Any chance you could recommend places to buy said furniture? I’m running a full rig that looks a lot like the one you have pictured above, for a bar table won’t cut the mustard for me.

There’s so many places to order sit-stand desks from, I couldn’t really give any sort of comprehensive list that I’m sure isn’t out on the web somewhere already. That’s they key phrase though: sit-stand or sit/stand.

I do definitely recommend trying it out before buying a desk if at all possible, as it’s probably not for everyone. The high bar stool as a fall-back is also a great idea.

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