Sitting disease? As a freelance writer and editor working out of my home office, I’ve been sitting in front of a computer and before that a typewriter (look it up if that was before your time) for too many hours a day for years, and have considered that it might not be so good for my health, even though I use a good chair. But a disease? Who knew?
I’m not the last to learn about it. I recently saw a job description that read: “Sitting is required 95% of the day. Occasional walking, bending, and stooping are involved.” According to the website juststand.org, the term sitting disease comes from the scientific community—not doctors, who say it’s not diagnosable—and refers to the effect sitting has on metabolism as well as the ill-effects of an overly sedentary lifestyle. Research studies cited on the website have produced worrisome findings, including:
- People who sit for more than 11 hours a day have a 40 percent increased risk of death in the next three years, compared with people who sit for four hours or less.
- Workers who have held sedentary roles for more than 10 years have twice the risk of colon cancer.
- A research study of 2,000 older adults published in 2013 found that those who spent the most hours seated every day had a greater risk of high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, a poor cholesterol profile and body-wide inflammation than those who sat the least, no matter how much either group exercised.
- The longer people sit, the shorter their lifespan, even if they exercise regularly.
- Sitting for long periods may also affect the development of musculoskeletal disorders.
If you’re at all like me—someone who’s been feeling quite virtuous about having an established exercise routine—then it’s bullets three and four that may be especially concerning. Research is finding that even marathon runners can also be sedentary if they spend hours sitting at a desk working—or checking Facebook updates, driving, watching TV or whatever.
If sitting is the new smoking…
If sitting is the new smoking, as it’s been said, just what options do desk jockeys like myself have to avoid the risks? The options are many and growing in number—from pricey treadmill desks and combination sit-stand desks to DIY multilevel desks to no-cost solutions like frequent and regular stretch breaks, brisk walks around the block or around your home or workplace, using any type of timer to tell you when it’s time to get up from your chair and move.
I asked several writer and editor colleagues if they had switched to a new desk or found other ways to avoid the evils of sitting. Seattle editor Roberta Klarreich purchased a sit-stand desk sold by hardwoodfurniture.com. She didn’t have a health condition, she told me, but a back issue that required her to maintain good posture. “My first encounter with the idea of standing at a desk came from reading that Hemingway wrote while standing up. The idea appealed to me because I walk around a lot when I’m thinking. What I wanted was the ability to switch easily between sitting and standing, without sacrificing ergonomics in either mode. I think standing makes me more alert.”
Bonnie Pasek, another Seattle editor, has had several types of desks at various workplaces to help her manage sciatic nerve pain that made sitting quite painful. Eventually her condition improved enough that she could alternate between sitting and standing. Now working from home, she uses a laptop at a desk and sometimes moves it to a butcher block table in the kitchen where she stands to do her work. She also takes breaks from sitting at her desk to stretch every hour. She said yoga ultimately “proved to be my saving grace—a life-changing way for me to manage my back pain.“
Seeking expert advice
For expert advice, I consulted with Portland-based physical therapist Matthew Marino, who also is a certified ergonomist. Marino’s general advice for anyone with a sit-stand workstation is to sit for 30 minutes, then stand for 30 minutes throughout the day. And he does not recommend treadmill desks, explaining that people can fall off them and get injured. Plus, he says, “We simply don’t have the brain power to be our most productive with work tasks while trying to walk in place. For people who don’t have a sit-stand workstation, I recommend they get up out of their chair to walk and move as often as possible, at least five minutes every hour if they have sedentary jobs. Also, no matter what type of desk they have, they need to be able to adjust the height of their computer monitor, keyboard and chair. OSHA has an eTool for this: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/”
While researching inexpensive alternatives to purchasing a sit-stand desk, I found a blog post offering DIY desk solutions for $22 and up, complete with photos plus useful information on optimal table and screen height. I wanted an even easier, though temporary low-cost solution so I am alternating placing my computer monitor on my desk and on a 9.5-inch-high shelf attached to the back of my desk. I keep my keyboard and mouse on a bamboo bed serving tray I bought for $12 at a discount store. When I place the monitor on a phone book on the desk shelf, I just raise the folded legs on the tray. After a few days of up-and-down with this setup I found my knees and hips were talking to me—not nicely—so I bought a GelPro chef’s mat to stand on when my monitor is up on the desk shelf. The cushioning works best without shoes. I have a couple of feel-good yoga poses I do when it’s time to get out of my chair and sometimes I head for the stairs outside my apartment to do five minutes or so of stair climbing.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for avoiding sitting disease, Marino says, which is why people consult with ergonomists like him. I may soon be one of them.