HomeArticlesSitting could be the death of you

Sitting could be the death of you

Hemingway did it. Churchill did it. So let’s do it. Let’s all stand up while we work.

Languishing in chairs, no matter how ergonomically astute, is killing us. It flies in the face of our species’ greatest adaptation: there is no greater walker on this planet than Homo sapiens, an ability we’ve used to spread ourselves far and wide. So being constantly perched on our backsides certainly can’t be good for our health. 

This is not news – talk of sitting’s deadly implications has been around for the past few years, perhaps even boosting the “standing desk” industry. But it remains a contemporary concern. In 2012 the University of Leicester in Britain, after combing through over a dozen studies, concluded that too much sitting can increase your chances of dying before your time by 49%.

But it was not health that pushed me into a lifestyle change. Ernest Hemingway wrote while standing – this piqued my professional jealousy. I can’t claim his talent but I might glean something from his habits. Fighting bulls is also a rather extreme measure, so standing will do.

The two-week long experiment started with the usual gusto that comes with a big change. My office was rearranged and I assumed the upright position. I’m not alone – there has been a buzz around standing at work, participating in standing meetings or conducting business matters while walking. 

Medically, sitting is not good for you: numerous studies, including one published in February by the University of Western Sydney in Australia, have linked very elevated risk levels for a variety of serious medical conditions to sitting for more than four hours a day, regardless of lifestyle.

The fact is, I sit too much and need a change. A boost in productivity also became a siren’s call: I have plenty of vices that can be reduced in the name of health, but improving my work flow – and financial prospects 7ndash; has a nice ring to it.

The downside

The downsides took little time to manifest. I have more working space around me – standing does add a fresh breath to your environment. But my feet were killing me. It was obvious I would need new shoes. 

“Footwear is a consideration on its own but basically the heel height should not exceed two and a half centimetres,” says Gina Badenhorst, secretary of the Podiatry Association of South Africa. 

“The soles of the shoes should allow for cushioning of the feet. Always wear sandals that have straps behind the ankles … slip-ons are bad for the posture.”

I did not have that advice when selecting my new pair. But I got pretty close, settling on a balance between price and whichever shoes felt most comfortable while walking through the cavernous store. The helpful saleslady fell short in one respect – though she clearly works standing the whole day, that particular shop doesn’t stock anything that fits her small feet. She bought no-name shoes from somewhere else. I neglect to ask her how her feet feel – it just didn’t seem appropriate. In fact, standing isn’t all that good for you either.

“Long periods of standing in professions such as hairdressers and teachers create problems,” Badenhorst explains. “The continuous upright posture causes sore feet, legs and backs.” 

This is true. By the fourth day, my feet are not letting up, though the new shoes help. A week in and my back decides to join the chorus. I write it off as simple adjustment pains but Badenhorst’s advice speaks differently: If you sit a lot, stand up every hour and walk around for 10 minutes. If you stand a lot, sit for 10 minutes. 

“Never stand still in one place for long periods of time,” she cautions. “One needs to move around to get the calf muscles working and blood to be pumped back up to the heart.”

So lots of standing is not healthy. But sitting sounds downright lethal. An infographic from that purveyor of modern truisms, Facebook, caught my attention. It promises all kinds of dire consequences for living by the seam of your pants. Heart failure, blood clots, sleep apnoea – words that immediately make me question my meagre yet curiously substantial medical aid payments. 

I run the image past Geoffrey Candy, an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s department of surgery and an expert in cardiovascular systems. He calls the image’s assertions a bit dramatic. “Heart failure is serious. It means the heart muscles are no longer strong enough to pump the blood around the body.

“Heart failure results from smoking, untreated high blood pressure and genetic causes. People with heart failure are often breathless and can only walk short distances before having to stop and get their breath back. [Those with] heart failure have more serious issues than sitting too long. I watched my 87-year-old mother die over three years from heart failure – she essentially suffocated. I imagine this would be uncommon in the working population.”

So sitting is just a part of a larger lifestyle problem. You can work on your feet and the pack-a-day will do you in. Candy is quite dismissive about rigid sitting causing blood clots, saying no clinical studies have been done to prove or disprove this. Likewise, sleep apnoea has more serious causes, though he adds that this is not his field of expertise.

But Candy does note the virtues of exercise: “Physical activity is probably one of the easiest and most underestimated interventions for preventing cardiovascular disease. If one exercises for 30 minutes, the benefits are huge – just the extra oxygen that you burn can be measured after 24 hours.” 

Exercise improves your basal metabolic rate – energy you burn while resting: exactly what you need when sitting around.

After two weeks, I’ve given up. Standing is not a silver bullet to productivity: I doubt I accomplished much extra, other than this article. And it comes with its own health risks. But I have made the adjustment to alternate between sitting and standing – this was written in the upright position, the research done from the comfort of my couch. Perhaps that is where Hemingway and I differ: he was never one for moderation. Then again, he didn’t have a 9 to 5 desk job.