If you’ve been reading the internet at all in the last year or so, you’ll probably have noticed the sudden spate of articles and research studies about the perils of sitting down too long at a stretch. In a nutshell, our bodies were designed to be active; sitting down in one place for hours at a time, as most of us do for work or play, causes a whole range of ill effects, such as increased cholesterol, weight gain, changes in gene expression, poor circulation, and all sorts of goodies.
Since my focus for this blog is in restructuring your environment to make the world better, I’m most interested here in what you can do to change your situation so you can stand up more often. The most drastic change most of us can make is switching to a standing desk. That way, you can get your work done while also strengthening your back and circulation. (Needless to say, Talmud students have been way ahead of us.) It may sound like a lot of work to change your whole desk setup, but the health benefits are profound. (This has been widely discussed in the blogosphere, with examples here, here, and here.)
Sadly, I do not have a standing desk myself; I’m not ready to lay out the cash for one. Nor do I have the next step down, which is to use a therapy-ball chair like this one (blog discussions here, here, and here, for starters). It’s not exactly standing, but it engages your core muscles and your legs so it’s nearly as good.
Still, people looking for a quicker fix, without disrupting their workspaces or shelling out cash, may want to just focus on standing up at least once an hour, and taking a single step away from your chair (or more than one). Fortunately, there’s been an explosion of free productivity software that you can use to remind yourself to stand up every so often. I use a Mac computer, and my favorite software for this is called Time Out Free. At programmable intervals, Time Out will gray out your screen so that you can’t click on anything until the timer runs out. You are supposed to use that time to look up from the computer, stretch, or even take a ten-minute break to recharge.
This is one of my favorite health aids ever, because it is so easy to use. It’s free, and you can skip a given break if you want to. (You can also keep using keyboard commands even during the breaks, so long as you don’t click with the mouse.) So there’s no rigid constraints you have to obey, just a self-imposed structure to remind you to take care of yourself.
Some experimentation will be necessary to see what works best for you. The default settings are to have a ten-minute break every hour, with short breaks every ten minutes or so, which I found too disruptive. For a long time, the Time Out software languished on my hard drive, unused. Once I was clued into the benefits of standing, I remembered Time Out and reprogrammed it so that now I get 20-second breaks every half hour, and 20-minute breaks every two hours. This works for me, and it feels really good to stand up and stretch out my back when I’ve been working hard. I’ve noticed that I feel more alert and energized since I started doing this as well.
And now, permit me a short digression into current politics (not normally a focus of this blog). It’s exciting that a lot of people are getting into this whole topic; still, we need more. Especially since our health care system is increasingly funded with government money, the truth is that our personal health is now a public matter. Therefore, it seems obvious that the government should be mandating that employers take steps to get their workers to stand up more. Considering the dramatic health benefits, such measures as public subsidies for standing desks should be reasonable. On the flip side, there would have to be penalties of some kind for companies that insist on being somnolent and sedentary, instead of standing up as good citizens should.
Of course, it is true that some industries have an easier time getting their workers to stand up than others. Indeed, it may be quite burdensome to make some types of workers stand up more (including, of course, the disabled). But an easy way to solve that problem is with a cap-and-trade system, whereby some firms can make dramatic improvements in their sitting-to-standing ratio, and sell “Chair Credits” to other firms having more trouble. One can even imagine having public markets, where investment banks can facilitate the trade of such Chair Credits between companies. The advantages of this approach should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer.
Fortunately, and in all seriousness, we needn’t wait for anyone to impose behavioral changes on us. All we have to do is put a little effort into restructuring our environment, so that actually developing a standing habit can happen without effort. That way, we can conserve our precious stores of willpower and use them for other things, even as we enjoy our improving health.