Our modern sedentary work style has been implicated in numerous chronic and acute diseases. Research shows that the more you sit, the shorter your life expectancy and the greater the likelihood you will experience one or more of the related health issues. Prolonged sitting is associated with ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, blood clots, and most commonly, prohibitive back pain. The rise in prevalence of these ailments corresponds to the increasingly sedentary lifestyle we lead.
Modern Alternatives to a Sedentary Workday
Major employers are taking note. Given that back pain is the leading cause of employee absenteeism, and thus a significant cost, they have good reason. Many are responding by installing standing desks, sit-to-stand workstations, and alternatives to traditional office seating. The movement is also starting to take hold on campuses across the country as administrators, faculty, and students demand a healthier option to the chair.
So what, exactly, is so wrong with sitting? It isn’t sitting per se that is so bad for us, but the extensive amount of time we spend doing it. The human body evolved over thousands of years to be upright and moving. Nomadic hunter-gatherers spent all day searching for food and shelter. Later, small-scale farming – and all the corresponding farm chores – filled people’s days with physical activity. It used to be that if you wanted something, you had to build it, grow it, or make it yourself.
The Industrial Revolution brought automation and mechanization, significantly cutting down the required physical workload for many people. The more recent rise, since the 1950s, of the “knowledge worker” has meant that millions of us now spend the majority of our time sitting at desks. And, in spite of our efforts at designing ergonomic features into our chairs, they still keep us largely sedentary and suffering from the myriad health problems that result.
Alternatives to prolonged sitting in an office chair include simply standing at a desk – the choice of Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, and Ben Franklin – and the emerging office furniture category called “active seating.”
Just Adding Standing to Workday is Not the Solution
Standing for office work is better for you than sitting at a desk all day. However, standing for prolonged periods is no panacea. In fact, because we sit for such long periods of time, we have actually shortened our major leg muscles (in particular, the hip flexors) that, in turn, pull on back muscles and make it very difficult for us to stand with healthy posture without focusing on it. Although standing does burn more calories, what our bodies really need is movement and a variety of postures. Remember the hunter-gatherers? They ran, walked, squatted, and jumped all day, rarely sitting in what we call the traditional seated posture.
While standing desk users tend toward greater movement than seated people, this movement is largely due to fidgeting from discomfort, according to a 2015 study by Dr. William Marass of the Ohio State University Spine Research Institute. This study demonstrated that there is a way to work at a desk that is measurably better for human health than both traditional sitting and standing.
The “active seating” studied involved a relatively new type of “stand-assist” chair that keeps the user in upright postures similar to that assumed in zero gravity. Perhaps most importantly, the study showed a significantly better heart rate variability (HRV) while in this perching/leaning posture than when standing. As HRV is an indicator of physical discomfort, the study concluded that perching has the comfort benefits of sitting without the biomechanical problems of standing.
Benefits of “Active Seating”
This emerging category of “active seating” is intended to address both sitting and standing issues by providing flexible seats that encourage movement in a more upright posture. The variety of postures induced increases the number of muscles used, which in turn increases blood and oxygen flow throughout the body. Engaged muscles remain stronger, leaner, and suppler.
All this movement and variety keeps us more alert and able to concentrate. The issues at hand are not new. Studies linking prolonged sitting to cardiovascular health date back to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Jerry Morris. In the 1950s, Dr. Morris conducted an epidemiological study on London bus drivers and mail carriers. He concluded that seated workers had higher rates of cardiovascular diseases than those who either stood or walked while working.
In a more recent study published in 2010, Dr.Alpa Patel et al found that overall time spent sitting was associated with total mortality, regardless of physical activity level. More than 110,000 men and women participated in the study that concluded that public health messages should include advice on decreasing total time spent sitting in addition to promoting physical activity.
The OSU study also demonstrated that active perching causes reduced spinal load and greater equilibrium between the major muscle groups that work to keep us upright. In addition, perching encouraged greater user movement, or increased levels of low-intensity physical activity (LIPA). According to Dr. Marc Hamilton of the Pennington Biomedical Institute, a leader in the emerging field of inactivity physiology, increasing LIPA is perhaps the most significant factor in reversing the effects of our sedentary lifestyle.
Active Seating and Standing Desk Trend on College Campuses
The active seating and standing desk trend appears to be taking hold on college campuses. Traditionally hubs of progressive ideas, institutions of higher education across the country are seeing their students, administrators, and professors starting to demand better, healthier options for libraries, offices, and dorm rooms.
Dr. Mark Benden of the Texas A & M Health Science Center has studied and written about the effects of stand-biased desks in academic settings. His work resulted in the creation of a faculty-led startup that manufactures a classroom version of a stand-biased desk. Benden now regularly receives requests from students around the country for assistance in convincing their school to adopt alternatives to traditional desks and chairs.
In the corporate workplace, healthier seating options and standing desks are directly related to improved employee health. This is not just “icing on the cake,” as employers realize that healthier employees are happier and more productive. Office culture gets a positive boost and so does the corporate bottom line. In academic settings, it is about students’ success in addition to workplace wellness for the staff. A 2015 study by Dr. Benden and other researchers at Texas A & M School of Public Health found that elementary school students using standing desks in school had a 12 percent higher rate of engagement than students using traditional desks and chairs.
Engagement was measured by frequency of answering questions, raising a hand, and participating in discussions. 480 grade school children were included in the study. In fact, according to Dr. Benden, “If this environmental change [introducing standbiased desks] improves both health and academic outcomes, this should serve as an incentive for schools to invest in altering their standard for classroom furniture to stand-biased modifications.”
Gaining a Competitive Edge
Like employers seeking to gain an edge on the competition, as universities compete to attract the best and the brightest, perks such as advanced technology, gleaming fitness facilities, and modern dorm rooms are becoming the norm. Now, standing desks and alternatives to traditional chairs for libraries and study rooms are beginning to appear on campuses.
Similarly to the eventual adoption of the Apple computer in business environments, a trend that began on university campuses, movements that begin on campus often end up spreading to the rest of the world. If you see students and their professors clamoring for better seating options, it may be a harbinger of what is to come in an office near you.