Sitting causes 173,000 new cases of cancer in the US each year.
Women who sit more than six hours a day increase their risk of early death by 37 percent compared to those who sit fewer than three hours a day.
For men, excess sitting boosts early death risk by 18 percent.
To make matters worse, exercise doesn’t necessarily undo the damage done by too much time on the butt. Studies show that 30 minutes on the treadmill every day (or doing any kind of exercise for 30 minutes)—while better than nothing—won’t negate the harm done by excess sitting.
And let’s face it, very few Americans sit fewer than three hours a day, the healthy limit. In fact, the average American sits 15.5 hours a day, more than five times the recommended limit. It certainly doesn’t help that 86 percent of workers in the US have sedentary jobs. They’re stuck at the desk for eight or more hours, like it or not. At least some experts believe that all that time spent sitting creates inertia, which is why workers collapse in front of their devices when they get home. Plus, sitting at the office typically happens during daytime hours when the body’s urge to be physically active is strongest. The upshot is that if it’s your fate to be a desk slave, you need to do something to counter the deadly effects.
One option, as we’ve written before, it to take frequent stand-up breaks at work if only to walk to the rest room and back. But if you’re a typical worker, there are days where you’re finishing up a report or plugging data into the system and you really do need to be in front of the screen for hours and hours between those breaks. Are you doomed?
Perhaps not, if you’re willing to spend a little money (or if you can convince your company to do so). There actually are a few things you can do to convert your desk experience into a healthier one.
Here are three things you can try:
Get a treadmill desk. The idea here is that you can keep moving your legs even as you read emails, type memos, and make your calls. Treadmill desks are just what they sound like—desks with low-speed treadmills attached. Or, if you prefer, treadmills with attached desks. Some models provide desktops made to work with any existing treadmill. The TrekDesk, for instance, is a wraparound desk that spans the top of your treadmill, complete with plenty of workspace for your computer and papers, a few built-in cup holders, a manuscript holder, a three-level file folder; and a telephone stand.1 The competitive WalkTop Treadmill Desk is a simpler, height-adjustable model that’s comparatively budget priced.
If you don’t already have a treadmill, there are plenty of options for integrated units. The relatively affordable Exerpedic 2000 Workfit, for instance, provides a basic workspace that’s only two by four feet with a simple, low-speed treadmill attached. It isn’t height adjustable, but if it fits your height and work space needs, it’s a good solution. Plenty of more expensive alternatives in the same class offer larger workspaces, built-in Bluetooth, and electronic read-outs of distance traveled, calories burned, speed, and heart-rate. Elite machines, like the iMovR Thermotread GT, offer cloud connection, super-quiet motors, and touch screens that even track how much time you’ve spent sitting, standing, and moving. You can buy an integrated unit, depending on options, for about $700 to $2000. The advantage of an integrated unit is that the attached treadmill will typically be quieter than what you find with a standalone fitness machine.
Can you actually get any work done while treadmilling? Users say yes. In fact, studies show that although productivity drops when users first start using treadmill desks, after four or so months, once they get accustomed to their machines, productivity actually improves as does quality of work.2 Even quality of relationships with colleagues improve. But working while on a treadmill isn’t a lycra-and-running-shoes-speed thing. Treadmill desks are designed to be used at super slow speeds; about two miles per hour is average. This means that you won’t necessarily get an aerobic workout at your desk, but you sure are better off than you would be sitting all day. Several studies have found that those using treadmill desks for three hours or so daily eventually lose weight and improve health profiles, even if they stick to a snail’s pace.3 Those who only hop on the machine for 30 minutes or so daily, on the other hand, probably won’t see any waistline impact. Experts agree that treadmill desks shouldn’t substitute for the daily workout, but be added onto it.
As great as these sound, let’s be honest. Unless you work for Google or are self-employed and have your own dedicated workspace, it’s not likely that you’re going to find an employer willing to set you up treadmill desk. So, let’s move on to some more viable options.
Use a Stability Ball. Don’t have the budget or space in your office for a treadmill desk? Your boss refuses to chip in? A far cheaper alternative that still beats the typical office chair is to sit on a stability ball (also known as a balance ball or fitness ball) instead of in your seat. Don’t know what a stability ball is? Think of the bottom of a snowman, made out of solid cushy vinyl. While stability balls are traditionally used in exercise routines to improve balance, strength, and coordination, they also can be used in lieu of chairs.
It takes extra effort to sit on a stability ball, because if you don’t keep the ball in balance, it will roll out from under you. You need to use your core muscles to stay centered on the ball as there’s no chair back to lean against, and you need to keep moving to adjust your balance.4 An added advantage is that sitting on the ball encourages proper spine alignment and some report it’s helped end their back pain. On the other hand, some people find the balls incredibly uncomfortable for prolonged use, and as you tire on the ball, you’ll slouch as much as in a chair. There’s some evidence that if you do slouch on the ball, the lack of lumbar support can lead to back pain and faster disc degeneration.
According to spine surgeon Dr. Nick Shamie of UCLA, “Maybe initially it’s better to sit on a ball, but as you tire, you can get into trouble. The danger is the typical hunching or arching that happens as the day wears on. It only works if you maintain perfect posture.”
Perhaps the best option would be to switch out your chair for a stability ball for 30 to 45-minute sessions throughout the day, remembering to take short walks in between. Now, this probably only works if you have a dedicated office. If you work in a cubicle, you probably don’t have room for both a chair and a stability ball. In which case, you probably need to look at Option 3.
Use a Stand-Up Desk or Even a Box on Your Regular Desk. The cheapest option of all is to put a cardboard or wooden box on your desk to lift up your monitor and/or keyboard, and stand! Hemingway wrote all his novels standing up and look how amazing they turned out! (On the other hand, he only lived to 61 in spite of all that standing, but there was the drinking issue and, of course, he didn’t die of natural causes…) Or, you can splurge and buy yourself a stand-up desk for far less than the price of a treadmill desk. Go for a height-adjustable model, and preferably, one with a separate keyboard stand so that your monitor and keyboard can each be at the appropriate level. Or, you can split the difference, and this might be your best option, and buy an adjustable standing desk “converter” that sits on top of your desk and allows you to adjust your computer and keyboard from sitting to standing positions and back in seconds.5
If you’ve spent years sitting during working hours, it will take some adjustment to stand for long stretches. You can start by taking intermittent stand-up breaks and little by little, increase your time on your feet. You’ll still need to walk around during the day to keep the blood flowing, but your overall health will benefit if you break up the day with long stand-up periods.
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