Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Sitting is bad for the health, so Dan Kois stopped – for a whole month. His calves weren’t happy. Nor were his children. But what lessons did he learn from being constantly on his feet?
Sunday 27 July 2014
Are you sitting down? If so, nice knowing you! If you sit for more than 11 hours a day, one study suggests, you’re 40 per cent more likely to die in the next three years than I am. I’m standing. I’ve been standing all day. I’ll be standing all month, in fact, without a break. I expect at the end of the month I’ll be sore but triumphant, glowing with smug enlightenment.
Reading the research, I’ve become convinced that sitting around all day is the worst thing I do to my body – that, like smoking, plopping down on our collective arse makes us profoundly likelier to die earlier. The effects have nothing to do with regular exercise; indeed, it seems that being sedentary when you’re not exercising eliminates many of its benefits. Sitting all day lowers good cholesterol and raises your risk of diabetes. While seated, you burn a single measly calorie each minute.
So a growing cadre of lean, mean, self-satisfied workers are exploring standing or walking on a treadmill at the office. They’re trying to maximise their vigour, and the tiny muscle movements that standing fosters – weight-shifting, stretching, walking around. Sitters, meanwhile, are basically already corpses: their “muscles go as silent as those of a dead horse”, a researcher memorably told The New York Times Magazine.
If sitting at work is terrible for me, shouldn’t I stop? And if I do, shouldn’t I stop sitting everywhere? I decided to spend a month on my feet: 30 days never being a couch potato, an office slug, a sitting duck. The exceptions: I would sit to drive (but would strive to take the train); I would sit when nature called. I would also sit to put my shoes on, I decided this morning after falling over trying to put on my shoes. I would lie down to sleep, although I surely wouldn’t need sleep, given that I’d be so healthy.
I ordered insoles, an anti-fatigue mat and gadgets to transform my office and home desks into standing workstations. I strapped on a fitness tracker to measure my activity. And I woke this first morning ready to stand in the place where I live, and stand in the place where I work.
9am My standing desk hasn’t arrived, so I’ve set my laptop on the kitchen counter atop Gary Larson’s The Complete Far Side: 1980–1994.
9.13am Confident! My wife walks past and says, “You seem impressive.” I feel impressive! These new cross-trainers I’m wearing give me better arch support than most of my shoes.
10.02am I’m already shifting from foot to foot to ease pressure on my back. I bend over and my vertebrae crackle ominously. Perhaps a stool, upon which the heroic stander may rest one foot, while the other bears the load, is in order?
11.24am Time for a walk. My calves ache, as if standing for three hours is more exercise than I get in one typically slovenly, indolent day. After my walk, I check my fitness stats – I’ve already taken almost as many steps as I did on a typical day last week.
12.45pm Lunch at the counter. Spill mayonnaise on my shirt.
2.41pm Having trouble getting work done. The idea of opening a new document to edit feels crushing, as though each task I take on carries the additional burden of standing the whole time. But hey, it’s the first day! I’ll get used to this.
4.02pm Made it! Walking to the bus stop. Walking feels way better than just standing.
6pm Lie down in bed for just a second to rest my eyes and fall instantly asleep, even though both my kids are shouting at the top of their lungs in the next room.
7.30pm Dinner. The family eats at the table; I eat at the counter. My younger daughter, H, cannot believe what I am doing. She takes my hand and leads me to a chair, as if perhaps I have forgotten we own it. “But why are you not allowed to sit down?” she asks. “Because it’s healthier,” I say. “And a man is paying me money.”
8.50pm Tennis with a friend. Usually, very competitive; today, I barely avoid getting thrashed. Driving to and from the court is a treat, though.
10pm Watch Game of Thrones. My wife is cuddled under a blanket on the couch. I am upright in the middle of the room, shifting from foot to foot like I have to pee.
11.35pm Lie down in bed. Feels great. Going to do some reading.
Total sit: 25 minutes (15 car, 10 toilet)
“Sitting was killing me,” says Michael Perko. I’m in my office at work, keyboard on an aluminium tray, talking on speakerphone as I type. “When we sit for long periods, the enzymes responsible for burning fat shut down. Sitting too much can lower good cholesterol, or HDL, and lead to a slower metabolism. In essence, sitting can cause the disease process.”
Perko, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is a cheerful anti-sitting agitator: “Even if you’re active,” he says, “even if you get up at five and do [a fitness video] – if you sit six hours a day, those benefits are negated.”
I explain my upstanding month-long project, and his upbeat demeanour falters a bit. “If you have any musculoskeletal problems, doing it all at once is not the right thing to do.”
“My back feels OK,” I lie. “Well, good luck!” he signs off. “I hope you suffer no lasting effects!”
4pm You know where an awkward place to stand is? In a cinema. I’m standing by the exit, the only place I am not in other people’s way, except when they go to the bathroom and eye me like I’m an alien serial killer. I’m not the alien serial killer here! Scarlett Johansson is! I just like to watch films while hopping up and down and pacing, OK?
Total sit: 45 minutes (40 car, 5 toilet)
I am already benefiting from my constant standing. So long, two o’clock snoozies. I’ve lost a couple of pounds. The shoulder tension and pain from hunching over a keyboard are gone, and my upper body feels 10 years younger. For much of the day, I am legitimately more productive. A basic work scenario: I’m stuck on a sentence and can’t figure out how to fix it. Sitting Dan opens a new tab in his browser and 15 minutes disappear. Standing Dan, meanwhile, takes a short walk around the office, maybe gets a snack, but who cares, because Standing Dan is burning thousands of calories walking three miles a day.
But by the early evening, I’m wiped out, and it doesn’t seem to get better as the days go by. Instead, I’m more tired and more sore. My calves, ankles and hips are possessed by separate, dull, throbbing aches that never dissipate. I’m popping paracetamol, stretching, and toe-touching all day. And my heels! How often do most men notice or think about their actual heels? Never. But by 5pm each day, all the attention that I once might have paid to office politics or world news is focused there. My family? My libido? Nope, heels. Somehow they are both throbbing and somewhat numb. If I take a shoe off and grab one, I can’t feel my fingers on my skin, but my heel doesn’t stop hurting. So that’s a problem.
11.45am Nice walk with my elder daughter, L, to shopping centre for lunch (at tall table) and home. Walking a long way used to feel like work; now, it’s a blissful respite from standing in one place.
4.15pm Wife, on the phone to her mum: “Yeah, he’s standing up right now.” (Pause.) “Um, slightly more grumpy than usual.”
7.30pm We’ve got tickets to a play tonight. I sit in my seat, on the grounds that I don’t want to be escorted out. Probably a cop-out. It feels so, so, so, so good.
Total sit: 125 minutes (90 play, 30 car, 5 toilet)
At the office, I am quick to tell co-workers that this is a stunt, that they shouldn’t expect me to seem healthy and awesome for ever. The desk trays I ordered are shaky and annoying. At home, I use a much more enjoyable (and thrice as expensive) one that slides up and down like a dream but takes over my entire desk.
During meetings, I move around the room, adopting the positions band members strike in terrible publicity photos. (One knee flexed, foot pressed against wall; crouching; resting on heels, arms folded.) The poses are hard to maintain, and I’m always on the outskirts of the meeting so my contributions seem speakerphoned even to those in the room. Then I take the train home and, no matter how many seats are vacant, I’m upright in the middle of the carriage. Bench mark: sitting burns one calorie per minute
8.30am Wife is super-impressed with me as I use scissors to trim Dr Scholl’s insoles at the kitchen counter while our kids eat breakfast. The man at the deli recommended them! I roll back and forth. They feel pretty good!
7pm One day on these insoles and they’ve gone completely Flat Stanley.
Total sit: 20 minutes (15 car, 5 toilet)
When I finally lie down each night, my calves spasm for half an hour. I am hitting snooze on my alarm more mornings than I have since the era of late-night feeds. That trick we all play every morning – where we fool ourselves that the day has more to offer us than our bed, just for a moment, just long enough to get up – is much tougher to pull off when I know I have 17 hours of standing ahead of me. Let me lie down a little longer, I think. Let this not count.
7pm Feel unusually happy and close to my family this evening. Realise why when H yells, “You’re sitting!”: I had absent-mindedly plunked down at the table through dinner.
8.30pm At bedtime, I read stories to the kids, not snuggled up cosily next to them but looming over their beds like an Edwardian headmaster. “You should never have said yes to writing that story, Dad,” says L dolefully, shaking her head at the foolishness of it all. She’s right.
Total sit: 40 minutes (25 car, 10 accidental dinner, 5 toilet)
“Science has known for a long time that standing all the time is bad for you,” Dr April Chambers tells me. “Longer than we’ve known about sitting.” Dr Chambers, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, studies people who are on their feet all day at work. She reminds me that most standers aren’t jerks like me, doing it for a stunt – they’re workers with no choice. “Seven of the 10 top occupations require standing for a prolonged period,” she says. “Retail, manufacturing, healthcare: there are big workforces where people stand a lot.”
Because of the density of research that shows that ceaseless standing causes health problems – varicose veins, lower-back pain, increased risk of stroke – many workplaces now supply sit-stand stools or at least foster movement by employees. (Capitalism being capitalism, it didn’t hurt that research also shows that uninterrupted standing hurts worker productivity.)
The lesson from Dr Chambers is the same I’ve heard from every scientist, from my doctor and my wife and an appalled massage therapist: standing all the time is no better than sitting all the time. The key is to do some of each. How much? Opinions differ. “Yes, a sedentary life is bad,” says Dr Chambers, “but no one seems to have identified yet where that healthy balance is between sedentary and standing.” Nearly all the scientists I talk to have sit-stand desks; they set alarms or use apps to remind them to stand up for 10 minutes every hour. They stand for meetings and phone calls – “I’m standing right now!” I keep hearing from scientists – and then they plop down to write or read.
Even when you’re standing still and working, you can do things to ease the pressure on your legs. Dr Jack Callaghan, of the University of Waterloo, tells me that in his research on standing and back pain, the primary difference he sees between “pain developers” and “non-pain developers” is posture. “Raising a foot – I have a recycling bin and I’ve turned it over, and I alternate legs, putting one foot on that and then the other.” It also helps to stand on a very slight slope, “one that can raise your toes just a little bit”. When I explain my situation to a massage therapist, she intones, “Oh, shit,” then teaches me a great Achilles stretch. These techniques, plus my own steady stream of invective, help to make my later weeks on my feet more tolerable than the earlier ones. Until Day 28.
Hit wall. Completely fucking dead. Wife rubbed my feet tonight. If Sitting Dan got a foot massage from his wife, he’d thank her. Standing Dan is a whiny arsehole. My dotage seems unpromising if I respond to relatively minor pain this badly. I have been really lucky in my life, health-wise; if/when I get some chronic condition, I had better medicate heavily so that I don’t get divorced/disowned by children.
Total sit: 60 minutes (40 car, 20 toilet, comprising four bathroom breaks, each representing one game of “Candy Crush”)
“Sitting: the great leveller,” Mr Burns memorably told Homer Simpson. “From the mightiest pharaoh to the lowliest peasant, who doesn’t enjoy a good sit?” Another great leveller is awkwardness around the guy who’s standing when everyone else is sitting. I had never thought about the social implications of standing versus sitting until this month brought them to the fore. At restaurants, I feel as though I’m delivering an hour-long toast; at the playground, my mien is transformed from relaxed-dad-on-a-bench to that of a pacing, nervous parent, ready to intervene at the slightest sign of trouble.
More than that, this enforced standing has made me realise how much of my time bonding with my family is spent seated. Now we play card games with me hulking over the table like a grudgingly accepted giant. I’ve begged off story time because my kids don’t like craning their necks to see the pages, and I find it maddening not to be able to snuggle with them in bed. At the beach house we shared with my in-laws one weekend, I was unable to relax or join anyone else in relaxing. I hovered around the edges of the living room as everyone else chatted and read, constantly checking my emails because it was a thing I could do standing up. What was meant to be a restful long weekend turned into a stressed-out ordeal, with me cast as the outsider unable to connect.
My month has been torture, but it’s succeeded. I’ve lost almost five pounds and gained muscle in my legs, especially my calves. I’ve cut my time-wasting drastically, editing and writing more than in any month I can remember. I’ve walked 92.5 miles, basically without trying.
Tomorrow, I have big plans to sit down all day. I’ll order lunch in and imperiously demand that all meetings take place in my office, like a sultan. But after that, I plan to work on my feet a lot, the memory of my all-day agonies reminding me that finding 10 minutes an hour to be vertical is not that arduous.
I stood up at family dinner for a month. Here’s hoping that what I learnt will keep me sitting down to family dinners, story times, and, yes, conference calls, for many years to come. µ
(c) 2014 New York Media LLC. The full version of this article first appeared in ‘New York’ magazine.
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