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Academic conferences as sitting marathons

rows of blue chairs
Image description: Rows of blue plastic chairs

Readers of the blog have heard lots about my standing desk. I’m in love! See Celebrating my standing desks. Like Emma and her treadmill desk, I was an instant convert. Now not everyone is convinced. See here. YMMV, as they say. But the standing desk works well for me. I’m a fidgeter by nature. I like pacing.

In the past my favorite working state has always been physically exhausted and mentally alert. I used to ride my bike and then rest, writing at my desk. But back pain and lousy sitting posture got me to investigate standing desks.

At the same time a whole bunch of research has come out about the health risks of sitting. We’re plagued by sedentary disease, as they call it. Sitting is the new smoking, blah blah blah. I’ve written lots about it. See But can you sit in the evening if you have an active job?, Sedentary athletes, not a contradiction in terms, and Stand up, get out of that chair, and get moving.

Here’s the most recent from the Globe and Mail,

“The list of ills associated with hours of uninterrupted sitting includes elevated risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other conditions, which occur as your muscles switch into a “dormant” mode that compromises their ability to break down fats and sugars. Crucially, exercising before or after work isn’t enough to counteract these effects – sitting all day is harmful no matter how fit and active you are. “

Tracy has wondered about ableism of all this “sitting kills” talk. Not everyone can stand or get up and walk around. “Just Stand” as a slogan seems to assume that standing is an option. And not all bodies can stand.

Many health campaigns make this mistake. It’s just like not everyone can take the stairs, ELEVATOR SHAMING and Ableism: Why Pro-Stairs Health Campaigns Kind Of Suck.

I’ve had two thoughts about this. First, I’ve thought we need to consider of the health risks of extended sitting for wheelchair users in our discussions of the health risks of sitting. There are discussions of active sitting and about standing wheelchairs. Second, we can’t assume that standing is an option for everyone. It’s not. My back problems mean I can’t sit all day. Other people have bodies that can’t stand. Human bodies and abilities vary.

A search for disability and sitting also turn up the concern that the two are causally linked. The obvious connection is the one I’ve mentioned, that wheelchair users sit more than non wheelchair users. A less obvious connection is that those who sit a lot are at greater risk for needing a wheelchair.

See Coach Potato Today, Wheelchair Tomorrow?

“Here’s another reason desk jockeys need to get up and move. Researchers are finding that sedentary behaviors like sitting even just an hour extra per day can up your risk for disabilities in later life — even if you are a moderately active gym rat.

The study published Wednesday in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health is the first to show that sedentary behavior alone may be an independent risk factor for disability, separate from lack of moderate physical activity, its authors say.”

For me the benefits of standing aren’t just physical. I’ve found it changes my writing. I’m more engaged, on task, alert. Less day dreaming and random web browsing. Now I tend to save that for when I flop on the sofa with my smart phone. As I posted to Facebook one day, if sitting is the new smoking, is flopping your bed with your smart phone the new heroin?

The world seems to be changing fast on this front. I know lots of people with standing desks. My partner’s workplace has standing meetings. They’re livelier, more engaged, and shorter he reports. I’ve gone for walks with my PhD students talk about thesis chapters. They humour me. I’m the supervisor, after all.

But some work related challenges remain.

First, there’s air travel. Just flew to California twice this post month. Five hours sitting. On the way home my anti sitting instincts were confirmed by my seat mate, a cancer researcher, also at a conference.  He says he’s read the research and is convinced. He sets an alarm and gets up every 20 minutes. With the permission of the flight attendants he stands at the back of the plane. But we can’t all do that. Should we organize turns?

Second, when you get there there’s the conference itself. If my regular working day is a 5 or 10 km run, conferences are sitting marathons. Papers started at 9 am and sessions ended at 9 pm with very few breaks. Most sessions came in three hour chunks sometimes without breaks. Now that I’m not used to sitting, it’s worse. I fidget, practise martial arts wrist locks, and then finally stand at the back. That’s okay but since everyone else is sitting even the speaker, it feels odd.

That’s a long day of sitting. Four days in a row.

Looking around at this conference I started to wonder about how we might change things. Airports now, in recognition that people will be sitting for a long time on their flights, have gotten better with stand up options. The London airport, in my home town has two long standing counters with electrical outlets close to the departure gates.

I thought that some of those counters at the back of conference rooms would work well.

Speakers, for sure, ought to stand. From my days in radio I know they’d sound better, more alive.

But the audience too might be more awake and engaged.

Third, there’s teaching. Not me, I stand and walk but I do worry about my students. I do try to get people up at least once in a one hour lecture.

I wonder what other changes we could make? Ideas?

6 thoughts on “Academic conferences as sitting marathons

  1. I love this post! No ideas (yet) but this makes me grateful for a convention in ASL-using academic communities, which is that in large group conversations the speaker is required to stand up (or at least move to the front) so that everyone can see. Like you, I get my students moving at least once during the hour — usually giving them an activity that requires working at the whiteboard in teams.

    One of my favorite exercises for students is what I called paired peripatetic activity — I have students answer a discussion question in pairs while walking/wheeling around the atrium in the building (it helps that the classroom is adjacent to the atrium). Before engaging in this activity and others that may be inaccessible, I email all students early in the term with a description of the kinds of activities I do in class, and ask whether the listed activities are accessible to all students in that class. If it isn’t, I ask them to provide accommodations. If none exist — sometimes this happens — then I just don’t use that activity for that class and do something else that is accessible/can be accommodated. Deafblind students with close vision interpreters or tactile interpreters have successfully participated in this peripatetic exercise, but as always, asking in advance beforehand is critical.

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  2. Thanks for this post! I am one to get really fidgety while seated at a conference. I think the standing counter would be great for me. And thanks for the reminder that I have to think of something for my students next winter: a 3 hours lecture at 8am!

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  3. Yes! Thanks Sam and Teresa for the teaching suggestions. I worry about the physical harm we do our students, as well as the fact that it is quite unreasonable to expect people to maintain focus for as long as classes and conferences do. This year I watched a bright student drop out of school because the sit-stand combination wasn’t enough for his back. He needed to sit, stand, walk, lie down, and stretch.

    Just yesterday I had a conversation with someone who said that she was more engaged with online courses because she felt free to participate as an avatar in a way that she didn’t in person. I wonder if we shouldn’t push for more virtual conferences where people can control their own physical environments more (I could participate in a talk from a treadmill), as well as how they present themselves to the group. This would also have the benefit of reducing the amount of pollution produced by air travel as well as travel costs. The one HUGE downside is the bonding that happens after the talks. This one would require some creativity, because conferences aren’t just about the information that gets conveyed. Then again, the after-hours bonding needs rethinking in any case. As we know, the social environment at conferences can be problematic.

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  4. Great post! Yes, I always feel creaky, with swollen ankles, more constipated (sorry, but it’s true) after a few days of near-constant sitting at a conference. I do try to get some exercise (and yes, am still bringing bike to St Catharine’s) but all that sitting is awful. I have thought of setting up high tables (like counters) for people to stand at. Maybe along the side of the room? Can someone convince the CPA folks to try a session or two (or can we think up something creative to try at our session)? Let’s think on this and see if we can start something.

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  5. I use the pomodoro technique primarily to make sure I don’t sit all day at work. I set a time for 25 min, and then take a 5 min break during which I get up and walk around my floor of the library or get a drink or use the restroom. I’ve now added a component of walking the stairs and looping through the other floors during the 15 min break after the 4th pomodoro.

    For a conference, it gets tricky. Most of my conferences are not papers being read by a speaker that I can refer to later. I’m grateful for tables in sessions where I can rest my note-taking device comfortably and type as fast as possible to capture the content. Luckily, sessions tend to end by 5pm, and because I don’t have a car there most of the time, we end up walking a lot to get lunch/dinner and sightsee.

    I have a pedometer (FitBit, actually) that is a great motivator to make sure I don’t sloth around on days outside of my routine.

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