The Stand

Is sitting down all day really that bad for you?

James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, walks one mile per hour, all day, on a "walking desk."     Photo: Inga Hendrickson

Chair

James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, walks one mile per hour, all day, on a "walking desk."

Hypothesis: Sitting all day at work may be deadly, even if you exercise regularly
Time Commitment: 30 days
Researcher: Gretchen Reynolds

One of the petty but gratifying pleasures of a month spent standing up is that you can look down your nose at the benighted types who spend their days sitting. You loom over them, even if, in other circumstances, they'd top you by a foot. Being morally shallow and rather short, I enjoyed the feeling.

But there are other, more consequential reasons to stand. A growing area of scientific research is teasing out what happens to your body when you park yourself. The findings are disturbing. When, for instance, scientists recently encased lab rats' hind legs in duct tape, they quickly became pre-diabetic—and the effects weren't reversed when the animals later were allowed to move about. Exercise, the researchers concluded, could not undo the biochemical impacts of not moving. Even more sobering, researchers affiliated with the American Cancer Society last year published a study showing that sitting for more than six hours a day contributed significantly to early death, even among people who exercised. A comprehensive 2010 review of studies on sitting concluded that your average "office worker who jogs or bikes to and from work, but who then sits all day at a desk and spends several hours watching TV in the evening" is at high risk of developing the same metabolic changes as seen in the immobilized rats.

I stood up and paced as I finished scanning that report. I haven't sat down much since.

But being a stand-up person in our compromised, modern world isn't easy. Have you noticed how ubiquitous chairs are? And couches? The very essence of politesse nowadays involves inviting someone to sit down. Beginning gently, I bought a wireless headset to use with my office phone, allowing me to pace around my office during phone calls. (You don't realize how tethered you are to your office chair until you untruss yourself.) Then I placed a digital timer on the office windowsill and set it to beep every 30 minutes to remind me to get up and stroll.

Bigger efforts are possible, of course. I looked into standing desks, but they tend to be pricey and small, barely large enough for a laptop. By spreading out my papers on a chest-high shelf, though, I could read and make notes while standing. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic and author of "Your Chair: Comfortable But Deadly," a research paper on sitting, takes the concept one step further. He walks one mile per hour, all day, on a "walking desk." These contraptions bridge a desktop over a treadmill and come in many different models, from a $39 DIY design (treadmill not included; treadmill-desk.com) to a $4,200 Steelcase beauty that arrives with the treadmill attached (store.steelcase.com).

Interestingly, as I detached literally, I found that I grew more connected socially. Commit yourself to regularly flitting and migrating during work hours and you will instinctively hie toward the cubicles of those you find most congenial. Invite them to walk down the hall with you, discussing work as you go. The new science of sitting can be both physically and emotionally uplifting.

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