By Kevin Meyer
Regular readers know that I've been using a stand up desk for well over a year, and annoyingly take nearly every opportunity to promote the concept. I have found that I'm far more productive, energetic, and tend to visit the gemba even more often. Now there's new research that sitting creates even more health problems, even for those who exercise vigorously nearly every day.
When Donald Rumsfeld was US defence secretary, he did not have a chair at his desk. “When he works, he stands,” a spokeswoman once reported. “He’s in great shape.” Indeed, when Mr Rumsfeld read a memo in 2002 that said suspected terrorists could be made to stand for only four hours during interrogation, he scribbled on it, presumably while standing: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” Now scientists have finally proved Mr Rumsfeld got something right: sitting is bad for you.
It took a few weeks to get used to standing 8+ hours per day, but now it's even harder to sit. If I'm forced to take a 2-3 hour drive it can drive me nuts.
Health researchers are always telling people to exercise. People rarely listen: only about 5 or 6 per cent of adults in the US and UK do the recommended half hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. Lately, however, some scientists have begun pointing out that the focus on exercise rather ignores how people spend their other 15 or so waking hours: mostly, sitting down. Even fitness fanatics who hit the gym at dawn might then drive to work and sit at their desks all day, before driving home to sit some more. Sitting, if you like, is the elephant in the fitness room.
So what's going on if sitting is harmful even for those who exercise regularly? It's the power of the ongoing minute "mundane movements" of those who stand.
The dangers of sitting go beyond lack of exercise. It is unclear exactly how these processes work, but Dr Stamatakis says it seems that prolonged sitting greatly reduces the activity of the beneficial enzyme lipoprotein lipase. When that happens, risk of heart disease rises.
Nobody used to understand why some people became fat even when they exercised and ate just as much as others who stayed lean. But that was before scientists began studying the mundane daily movements that fall short of actual exercise. When they looked at these movements, it turned out that fatter people generally sat more and stood less than thin ones. Professor Levine and others found that the lean people in their study spent 150 minutes more per day doing some sort of movements than did the obese ones. Any changes in these mundane movements “directly predicted resistance to fat gain with overfeeding”, the team wrote.
So what's the prognosis?
Now some scientists are calling for health warnings against chairs. “The dire concern for the future,” write Professor Hamilton and colleagues, “may rest with growing numbers of people unaware of the potential insidious dangers of sitting too much.” Perhaps desk-workers should be urged to stand while on the phone , or to stand for a few minutes every hour, like the “seventh-inning stretch” at baseball games.
Good advice. Now to get back to looking for a treadmill to go under my desk. It's time to take it up a notch.