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Get off your a**: Is standing at work the new sitting?


As desk jobs go, Barbara Manzano has a good one. But sitting in the office for hours at a time left her physically drained. So in January she rigged a platform to elevate her computer, and now she can stand while she works.

“When I was sitting in the chair all day, I would start getting tired and then I would have to go get a Cuban coffee shot or something,” says Manzano, 50, a planning and finance director in FIU’s Office of Academic Affairs. “Now I’m just full of energy. I don’t feel tired. I feel totally more focused, more productive.”

Manzano is part of a slowly growing movement—nationally and, now, at FIU—that has office workers ditching their sedentary ways. Mounting scientific evidence suggests that sitting for prolonged periods daily can shave years off of one’s life, even when coupled with regular exercise. Time spent sitting on the job, combined with time in the car and on the couch, can lead to a variety of health issues, doctors say.

Potential problems include heart disease, explains Dr. Jorge C. Mora, a professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, and a host of related ills: hypertension, stroke, dementia, osteoarthritis, diabetes and obesity. Getting off of one’s derriere is a step in the right direction.

“It’s empirically clear: every time you are standing, you are changing your heart rate, your blood pressure,” Mora says. “You at least have some changes in your body that might be beneficial.”

The case for standing
College of Law Professor Eric Carpenter took up standing in 2006. A former Army helicopter pilot, he was serving as a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps at the time and noticed that writing while hunched over a desk resulted in pain he likened to whiplash.

new Eric Carpenter

Observing Professor Eric Carpenter stand instead of sit at his desk has inspired several others in the College of Law to do the same.

 

He solved his problem by trimming the legs on a cheap coffee table that he then used to prop up his computer. “It just got my posture better,” he says, “and the tingling in my neck went away.” Eight years later, Carpenter, 42, is still standing.

Camilo Payan, 25, a programmer in External Relations, embraced the trend in December and uses the same DIY workstation setup as Manzano—a popular design made with about $30 worth of Ikea components. First, however, he tested the idea by resting two monitors and a keyboard on cardboard boxes. Right away he noticed benefits.

Before, “Doing programming, I’d be sitting for a long period of time, and I’d be sore when I stood up,” recalls Payan, who experienced the discomfort despite exercising regularly. Once he got vertical, he says, “I was never sore.”

The (scientific) jury is still out
While anecdotes in favor of the practice abound, Dr. Mora cautions that no studies have linked standing on the job to improved health. Research has focused only on office workers who use “treadmill desks” set at a walking pace of one-to-two miles per hour.

And, Dr. Mora cautions, standing for prolonged periods can have its own negative effects, among them swelling of the feet, varicose veins, lower back pain and shoulder pain caused by poor ergonomics. To combat these, Dr. Mora offers a few simple guidelines.

  • Wear the right shoes. Flats are more comfortable than heels, and sneakers offer more shock absorption than street shoes.
  • Pad your standing surface. A gel mat – available at many home-goods stores – or another soft surface should provide a cushion to fight sore or tired legs.
  • Elevate one leg. Bending one knee over a stool or similar object that is at a comfortable height will relieve pressure on the lower back.
  • Stretch the upper body. To avoid shoulder pain and stiffness, Dr. Mora suggests stretching exercises such as these (good for seated workers too). Ensuring that one’s workstation is elevated to an appropriate height, of course, is key to avoiding problems in the first place.
  • Take sitting breaks. Manzano and Carpenter both alternate standing at the computer with stints of sitting at a desk to complete other kinds of tasks.

And, finally, to anyone eager to improve his or her health during the workday, Mora suggests, “Every two hours, go for a 10-minute walk. In eight hours, you get in 30 to 40 minutes of walking.” And, he adds, whether one stands or sits while working, everyone should follow up daily with at least 30 minutes of—what else?—exercise.

“The more you move, the better. It comes down to that.”