Deskbound? Here’s how much you need to stand or move to stay healthy.

22 Jul
By Christie Aschwanden July 20 at 1:47 PM

You’ve probably heard that “sitting is the new smoking”–the
looming health risk in the computer age. A proliferation of studies
over the past decade has linked prolonged stretches of sedentariness
to an uptick in the risk of diabetes, heart disease, even cancer.

A consensus statement published last month in the British Journal of
Sports Medicine recommended that people in desk jobs aim initially
for two hours of standing or light walking each day, gradually
building to four hours of nonsedentary activity during the day.

If those targets seem extreme, take heart. They’re meant to be
accumulated over the course of 16 waking hours, says the statement’s
lead author, John Buckley, a professor of applied exercise science
at Britain’s University of Chester and chair of the International
Council of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation. If you’re
starting from zero, aim to reach the two-hour goal over the course
of a month and then move on to the four-hour target over the next
three to four months.

Bouts of activity can be short. If you’re just standing, you need to
do so for five or more minutes at a time, says Buckley, but if
you’re moving, two minutes is enough to give benefits.

Still, the question remains: How do you fit that many hours of
non-sitting into a desk job?

What goes wrong in our bodies when we park ourselves for nearly
eight hours per day? A chain of problems from head to toe.

Ideally, you should avoid sitting for more than half an hour at a
time, and one simple way to do this is to set a timer that reminds
you to stand up and move a little every 30 minutes, says Neville
Owen, head of the Behavioural Epidemiology lab at the Baker IDI
Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

These bouts of exercise don’t need to disrupt your work, says John
Thyfault, an associate professor at the University of Kansas Medical
Center, who has studied the physiology of sedentary behavior. If you
make a habit of using a printer in another room or the restroom on a
different floor, you’ll automatically incorporate some motion into
your day.

“I treat myself with an afternoon coffee at a shop quite a long way
from my office,” Thyfault says. When you need to chat with a
co-worker, consider taking a walk together.

When I’m writing (or procrastinating from writing), I like to take a
quick dance break once in a while. My little one-song dance parties
don’t just energize me, they also can reboot my brain, and they’re
fun, not a chore. This strategy works in my home office, but it
might be embarrassing if you work in an office with other people–
unless you rally your colleagues to join. In an episode of the
television show “30 Rock,” Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemon,
encourages her staff to take one-minute dance breaks.

Social support from your co-workers is key, Buckley says: “Do not
try and do this on your own, as many of your work colleagues may
think you’re a freak.” Instead, try to engage key workers or office
leaders so that physical activity becomes a joint venture. One
office leader making active breaks a habit can have a ripple effect.

This spring, I spent a month working as a fellow at the Santa Fe
Institute in New Mexico. One day, anthropologist Paula Sabloff
invited me to join her daily stair walk. The ritual began, she told
me, shortly after her arrival at the institute in 2009, when she
found herself missing her walk up the five flights of stairs to her
previous office in Philadelphia. Because SFI is located in a
one-story building, she decided to make a few trips up and down the
outdoor stairs between the campus’s lower parking lot and the main
building. As a bonus, the Santa Fe stairs come with a view and the
invigorating aroma of pine trees.

Sabloff makes six trips up and down the staircase every morning at
10:30, with whoever will join her. She has made a habit of inviting
more junior post-docs to take part, and when she hired two young men
to help her on an archaeological project, she invited them, too. The
ritual established a social rapport that benefited their
relationship, she says

Like several others at SFI, Sabloff works at a sit-stand desk.
Although hers is designed to move up and down with the touch of a
button, you don’t need an expensive desk to alternate between
sitting and standing. During my stay at the institute, I attached an
Ergotron Work-Fit mount to my standard-issue desk so that I could
use my laptop from either a sitting or a standing position. The
device, one of many available to convert traditional desks into
standing ones, was easy to install and remove, and with a retail
price of less than $300, it was more affordable than the motorized
sit-stand desk I use at home.

I mostly stand, but sometimes I need to sit down, and a few months
ago, I bought a Kore office wobble chair in hopes of finding a more
active way to sit. The chair allows fidgeters like me to rock and
move while seated. I found the seat comfortable, but its selling
point–that it requires some muscle activation to keep steady–
was its downfall for me. The position I naturally fell into while
using it exacerbated an old hamstring injury.

During my stay at SFI, I tried out a Swopper, another office chair
designed to allow for “active” sitting. This one suited me
perfectly. The seat rests on a giant spring that allows you to
bounce in a motion that stretches and soothes the back, and it tilts
backward and forward, allowing lots of rocking and swaying without
putting pressure on my testy leg.

Yet just because the Swopper allows motion doesn’t mean you’ll
actually move. I observed several of my colleagues testing the
chair, and they seemed to follow a similar pattern. They’d try out
the bouncy spring, then settle into a static position that left them
nearly as sedentary as they’d be on a regular chair. It seems that
even a motion-enabled chair still requires some deliberate effort,
and Thyfault says that because the energy it takes to wiggle a chair
is probably low, it’s better to focus on steps and standing.

Movement has mental benefits, too. In experiments Owen conducted in
Australia, people reported feeling tired and irritable at the end of
days with prolonged sitting. But on days when people had been asked
to stand up regularly and do some simple exercises, they reported
less fatigue and greater mental alertness, Owen says. There’s also
some evidence that exercise breaks improve performance and cognitive
function, Thyfault says.

While a lot has been made of the potential for many hours of sitting
to cancel out the benefits of a single daily bout of exercise,
Thyfault says, this doesn’t mean that it’s pointless to go to the
gym or spend your lunch hour running.

“One bout of exercise per day still has huge benefits,” he says.
Just don’t use that one session as an excuse to rest on your duff
the rest of the day.



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