Office workers – stand to attention

With ever more studies linking sitting down to early death, it’s time to consider losing the chair

Given the prevalence of sedentary workplaces, it’s easy to forget that sitting at a desk all day is a relatively new practice. Even in the late nineteenth century, office workers were a tiny minority in the West. And US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson relentlessly propounded the benefits of his self-designed “tall desk” for standing while writing.

Recent research suggests he may have been on to something. Epidemiologists at the American Cancer Society found that men who spent six hours or more sitting each day had an early death rate 18 per cent higher than those sitting for three hours or less. For women, it was 37 per cent higher. As ever, Silicon Valley seems to be ahead of the curve – in 2011, Facebook reportedly had 250 workers using standing desks (from a staff of 2,000 at the time), while Google and AOL have also risen to the health challenges of seated working.

Ernest Hemingway was another early-adopter – although imitating his working day would involve knocking back dozens of dry martinis. So are standing desks the future?

Lethal chairs

The medical studies make for grim reading, and suggest that elevated desks may be more than just another passing office fad. Anti-sitting crusaders point to research linking sedentary working to increased rates of heart disease, diabetes and a slowdown in the metabolism, effects that can only partially be offset by leading a healthy lifestyle outside work.

And the office chair may be killing your productivity too. James Levine of Mayo Clinic in the US writes: “Our bodies are programmed to move. Sitting causes your central nervous system to slow down, leading to fatigue.” Many users of standing desks claim they no longer experience the dreaded 3pm energy slump, and report increased productivity throughout the day.

Levine champions an even more radical solution – the treadmill desk. Microsoft and Evernote are reported to have jumped on board, with workers opting for either the permanent option or a treadmill check-in sharing system. The belt can move at around four miles per hour, but most find a leisurely one to two miles per hour more comfortable.

Up and down

Like numerous other health campaigns, the standing office has faced a backlash. Not only does standing put an extra strain on your heart, it can also be problematic for circulation – some sheepishly admit to the Hulk-like varicose veins they’ve developed since ditching the chair.

And changing the design of an office won’t be practical for most businesses. The Varidesk, one of the more affordable standing options, may start at just $275 (£164). But multiply this by the number of workers, add in redesign fees, alongside the bureaucracy of asking which desk employees prefer, and the cost quickly spirals. And all this for some fairly contentious health benefits. Moreover, office managers may feel that handing over furniture choice to employees sets a dangerous precedent.

But it’s probably a mistake to think of this as an either-or issue. Chairs are comfortable – you don’t have to spend too long on the Piccadilly line in rush hour to understand why seats are so coveted. Instead, the latest trend among office ergonomists is “Postural Rotation” – using a Jefferson-style adjustable desk to alternate between standing and sitting through the day.

Monitor time spent on two feet

Standing Clock

Free web app

If postural rotation is the future, then we’ll all need an easy way to track time spent standing up. Basically a glorified stopwatch, Standing Clock runs as a separate tab in your browser. All you do is hit “stand up” when you leave the chair, and then (surprisingly) “sit down” when you do the reverse. It also comes with analytics, for “quantified self” enthusiasts.