Well no, that didn't really happen. But in my mind, I keep expecting it to. Here's how the fantasy goes:
At Christmas dinner, Barbara, who is a marketing executive, is regaling her family of nurses, waitresses and hairdressers on the thoughtfulness of her boss bringing in standing desks for the whole office. "Sitting, you see," she says, "is much harder on the body than standing. Now our whole office will have less health problems."
At this point her mother, a hairdresser for 45 years, who has edema in her legs and spider veins that rival any you've ever seen, her sister, a career waitress with severe sciatic pain, and her aunt, a nurse whose battles with plantar fasciitis have been epic, leave dinner to storm Barbara's office. They throw standing desks out of windows, attracting other standing professionals until a bonfire is lit burning all standing desks in effigy. "How did we let it get this far?" people proclaim when they see the papers the next morning.
Really... How Did It Get This Far?
Well, here's how it happened. As usual, we wanted a quick fix to a slow problem, and bought into some really good marketing. "Sitting is bad," the research said. So it's not surprising that we didn't ask too many questions when we were offered an alternative, and one that our brains could make sense of -- "Sitting is bad, therefore standing must be good!" But you see, it's not that easy, as things rarely are.
What you've been reading about the dangers of sitting is all true: It is bad for your body. Poor Barbara is likely to have back and neck pain, an increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, and even a shorter life span due to the prolonged time she spends being sedentary. But, and here's the important part, going from sitting in a static posture to standing in a static posture is not the miracle cure to modern American sitting disease. The dangers of sitting are not routed in the position itself, but in the lack of motion associated with sitting for hours on end at your job.
Motion Is a Necessary Nutrient for Our Bodies
These incredible machines were made for a life that involves simple everyday mechanics: walking, bending, lifting, and leaning. These "micro-movements" activate our musculoskeletal system, our lymphatic system, and our circulatory and digestive systems, among others. But in the modern technological era, we're able to live a larger majority of our lives without ever using those micro-movements, and that is the basis of "sitting disease."
We measure our risk of sitting related injuries and diseases by the amount of INACTIVE time we accumulate each day. Sitting, for example, is worth 1 MET (Metabolic Equivalent of Task, a measure that expresses the amount of energy expended). Burning only 1 MET is considered "inactive." But when we go from sitting to standing, we only gain .3 MET, meaning that standing is only slightly more "active" than sitting. Is it enough, researchers are asking, to negate the negative effects we've been associating with sitting?
Well, like anything else, the answer isn't black and white. Many of the "inactivity physiology" researchers, the main guys who came out with sitting research, people like Dr. James Levine, Dr. Alan Hedge, and Dr. Marc Hamilton, say no, that going from sitting to standing is not enough to lower the risks associated with sitting disease. In order to do that, the body needs more motion, to engage in a task that represents more than 1.3 MET for at least two minutes of every hour. However, there are research studies that have found that standing desk users are happier, healthier, and more productive than their sitting counterparts.
Sitting or Standing, Both Have Health Implications
As a chiropractor, I've been weighing on this debate since before it actually started, preparing for the day that Barbara's family stages a coup on the standing desk industry -- and here's why: For decades I have treated nurses, hairdressers, and waitresses -- people who stand all day for a living -- and know that standing for prolonged periods brings along health complications of its own. The edema, spider veins, plantar fasciitis, and sciatic pain of my fantasy are all real players in my office every day.
I also treat people who have been using standing desks. In my personal experience, I see most people using them incorrectly, making them even more of a hazard. If you stand with poor posture, leaning to the side, or leaning down on your desk, you'll end up with a whole new host of pain symptoms than the ones you had from sitting. I just don't see how that's much better than where we were before.
The Solution Is Simple
That doesn't mean I think you should literally throw your standing desks out the window. It is great to change positions and postures often throughout the day. Just make sure that whether sitting or standing, you're doing so correctly. That means that there is an S curvature to your spine, your shoulders are back and down, your chest is up, and your feet are shoulder width apart. But still, that's not quite enough. If you really want to avoid the pitfalls of the modern technological desk sentence, you have to move a little bit more all day long.
It doesn't take a lot. While again, different researchers have different recommendations, the most realistic and consistent plan that I suggest to my patients is to move for two minutes for every hour that you're sitting. You don't have to break a sweat, you don't even have to get out of your chair if you don't want to. Just stretch a little, take a walk around, do some "micro-moves" like side bends, wing backs, or neck rolls. Not only will this motion stimulate those biochemical and physiological processes that being inactive damper, but it will also give your musculoskeletal system the right amount of motion and oxygen to stay healthy and pain-free.
The moral of the story? Before you start an uprising at your Christmas dinner, be sure to recognize the real danger of the modern American workplace -- it's lack of motion, not sitting, that's driving us all to an early grave. In even better news, you don't need a bunch of fancy equipment to get yourself healthy at work. Just move a little more every hour and watch your posture, and another day will be saved from the threat of a standing worker riot.