Guest Post

Finally Using a Standing Desk (Guest Post)

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For nearly a decade I’ve been doing something that is shortening my life, if I’m to believe the spate of studies and articles in the past few years, including these Fit is a Feminist Issue posts here, here and here.

I have a sedentary job. I sit all day at a computer or in meetings. Or drive between work locations and meetings. All day.

I’ve been wanting to try a standing desk for a long time, but never managed to overcome my inertia and actually do anything about it until recently. I had a lot of excuses. The office furniture at my company was very new, and I didn’t want to make a fuss by asking for something else. I also didn’t want to stick out among my colleagues (although one of our managers had successfully (and uneventfully) made the switch to a standing desk).

I tried a few temporary, do-it-yourself solutions (putting my laptop on my filing cabinet, and stacking a couple of boxes or bins on my regular desk), but those had been really unsatisfactory because I couldn’t get the height just right, and couldn’t get enough space to use my mouse, which tired my mouse hand. I do a lot of document editing and desktop publishing, and need to be able to move my mouse hand freely and ergonomically to avoid making my chronic carpal tunnel syndrome worse.

Then I started working from home, and realized that I had a lot more flexibility to create a work space that was healthier and more varied.

A couple of weeks ago I watched a video from Mark’s Daily Apple (below) about his company’s standing-friendly office space, and seeing the variety of solutions that they used inspired me to start playing around.

 

Rather than messing around with more boxes or bins on my home desk, I simply set up my laptop on top of a high chest of drawers in my living room (see photo). I’ve been working there ever since. Turns out it’s the perfect height for me to work at, with plenty of sideways room for a mouse and papers if necessary. I tend to like a minimalist work surface, and I can put any extra paperwork that I’m not currently using on my nearby dining room table, or leave it in my home office/studio (in what was originally my home’s master bedroom).

I love the standing arrangement for a lot of reasons. I’ve always preferred changing my position frequently whenever I had the choice, and now I have an even larger range of options. I can shift from leg to leg every few minutes, take a temporary seat on a high stool from time to time, rest one of my feet on a low stool, or move to one of my other nearby chairs to do work on my phone (like read an e-book, post to social media, or use one of my iPhone apps).

If I’m thinking or watching a video on my computer (I watched a 2-hour webinar this week using the new arrangement), I’ll move around a lot – pacing, sweeping the floor, doing squats, calisthenics, dance warm-ups, stretches, or aikido basic movements. Then when I need to use the keyboard or mouse again, I just move back to the laptop.

The only downside to the long-term standing that I’ve noticed so far is that my feet and ankles get really fatigued. I’m dealing with a sports injury to my right ankle, and I have to watch that the swelling doesn’t get too bad. I think all the frequent changes in position are good for my leg injuries overall, though – I’ve noticed that I don’t get stiff the way I used to when I sat in a desk chair all day.

In addition to my work I’ve also started doing some of my extracurricular visual arts (drawing) at my “standing desk” too, and I absolutely love that! I can quickly move in and out to get different perspectives on the piece I’m working on, and my dominant arm definitely doesn’t get as fatigued as when I used to do work on my lap, or at a regular table.

All in all, I regret that I waited so long to try to work standing. Now I just need to wrap my mind around standing at meetings…

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Uncategorized

Excessive sitting, more studies, more really bad news, but what to do?

The bad news: Excessive sitting linked to disease, premature death and Sitting for long periods increases risk of disease and early death, regardless of exercise.

The amount of time a person sits during the day is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and death, regardless of regular exercise, according to a review study published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

 “More than one half of an average person’s day is spent being sedentary — sitting, watching television, or working at a computer,” said Dr. David Alter, Senior Scientist, Toronto Rehab, University Health Network (UHN), and Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. “Our study finds that despite the health-enhancing benefits of physical activity, this alone may not be enough to reduce the risk for disease.”

The meta-analysis study reviewed studies focused on sedentary behaviour. The lead author is Avi Biswas, PhD candidate, Toronto Rehab, UHN and the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto, and the senior author is Dr. Alter, who is also Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Toronto.

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What to do?

Walking during the day: Quit Sitting And Walk: Hourly 5-Minute Walks Found To Undo Side Effects Of Prolonged Sitting

Standing desk: Celebrating my standing desks and 5 tips for transitioning to a standing desk

Treadmill desk: Emma Donoghue guest posts about ‘the miracle’ that’s her treadmill desk

Set a timer: Tracy and I both write using the Pomodoro technique, short focused bursts with breaks. We use timers and that makes taking a break from sitting easy.

In the evening?: I’m good during the day–I work at a standing desk for at least half the time–but nights can be a challenge when I’m not out doing Aikido or riding my bike.  Sometimes at night I just want to watch Netflix or sit in a comfy chair with a book.  I foam roll in the evening, and there’s lots of household chores to keep me hopping. Weekends, I worry about movies. It doesn’t sound like much but 2 hours or more sitting really isn’t my thing. See Life as a shark!

What do you do to sit less?

Uncategorized

Celebrating my standing desks

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Image: Hearts, love, and snow flakes

Last summer I swapped my regular desk at home for a standing desk in anticipation working more at home during my sabbatical.

For non academics reading this, sabbatical leave isn’t time off work, it’s time to focus on writing and research rather than teaching and administration. Our usual workload is 40-40-20, teaching, research, and administration. But during a sabbatical it switches to 90-10, research and teaching. The 10% teaching =graduate student supervision. No matter what PhD supervision continues apace. You can read about my PhD students here. In past years I’ve traveled for my research leaves. Here’s looking at you University of Otago! Miss you Australian National University!

But this time I promised the kids we’d stay at home. A workload of 90% research and writing usually means lots of time sitting. But that’s not for me, and in particular not good for my back, hence the standing desk. I’ve done a fair bit of physio over the years and my sitting posture stinks. I’m a great walker, stander, rider, jogger and sitting isn’t healthy anyway. See the infographic below with apologies for the obesity link. 

Infographic removed and replaced with a waving photo of me. See Tracy’s concerns below about ableist messaging…

Early into this “fittest by fifty” project I also read Drop Dead Healthy. (Here’s my brief review.) The standing (or walking) to write is one of the recommendations AJ Jacobs keeps after a year of trying out lots of different fitness advice.

My standing desk is nothing fancy. I followed the instructions on one of the very many “how make your standing desk out readily available materials” websites. I loved it.  If I ever decide to do the “treadmill desk” thing I ‘ll also be going the DIY route. You don’t need a good treadmill, with fancy controls and bells and whistles. After all, you’re not gong to run on it. You’re going to turn it into a desk so buy one of the very many treadmills for sale in thrift stores or on online used goods venues.

I put in a request for a standing desk at work and that’s even better. It’s fancy and moves up and down so I can sit some the time and stand when I feel like it. The moving up and down proves useful at work because I wear heels of different heights and I don’t always like to write barefoot. At home I write in barefeet and I have a very comfy mat that I stand. It’s designed for chefs who work long hours standing on hard floors. I found it a fancy kitchen store and I love it.

So do I still love my standing desks? Yes.

My back certainly does.

I also love the energy and feeling of being alive and on task that comes with standing. It reminds me of a lesson I learned doing radio. Stand to talk. You sound better. I think I write better standing too. Posture matters and standing makes me feel engaged and in touch with the ground. Like I have something to say. It’s true also that when I give research talks I have to stand. Sitting is pretty much a guarantee that I won’t feel as good about it.

I tend not aimlessly web browse when standing. I’m much more focused. The joke is that I save that for my smart phone. I once joked on Facebook that if sitting is the new smoking, then flopping on your bed using your smart phone must the new heroin.

It’s also been a very active year (lots of running, biking, lifting and throwing and being thrown) and it’s been a year without back problems! That’s exciting for me. Typically all of my back problems have come from sitting after riding. Now I’ve started standing in meetings too and standing at talks. I haven’t quite worked up to walking and talking with grad students but I’m almost there.

I love my standing desks.

See also:

Short answer to the last question: NO!

Image: Me waving from my standing desk, learning to use the timer on my phone camera
Image: Me waving from my standing desk, learning to use the timer on my phone camera
fat · fitness · weight lifting · weight loss

Science, exercise, and weight loss: when our bodies scheme against us

I love it (okay, not really, need sarcasm font) when people suggest to me that to lose weight, I should get a bit of exercise, you know, walk more, or take the stairs instead of the elevator. When I tried Weight Watchers for the very last time they gave handy hints like getting off the bus one stop early and walking to your destination. (Um, I ride my bike to work most days. I ride hundreds of kilometers a week, in addition, for fun when the weather is good. How does that fit in?)

Of course, this advice is always from well-meaning people who don’t know me. Those who know me, know that I work out at a variety of sports and physical activities most days of the week, often twice a day. I run, ride my bike, play soccer, lift weights, practice Aikido, and most recently have taken up Crossfit. And yet, I’m very overweight. Fat, big, call it what you will.

How on earth can this be? Newcomers to cycling sometimes say “Oh keep riding the bike and you’ll lose weight,” thinking I’m new too. (I like passing those people, zoom!) Sometimes I’m aware I actually put other fat women off exercise because they are starting to exercise in order to lose weight and then they see me, and think it’s all pointless. But I don’t exercise to lose weight. My experience tells me that, on its own, it doesn’t do very much.

So why doesn’t exercise help with weight loss? (Or to put the question precisely, why doesn’t it help as much as it seems it ought to, when you consider the calories burned in our efforts at fitness?) Given my interests and personality type–geek, academic, fitness buff–I’ve read rather a  lot about this question.

There are a number of different answers.

The first answer is simple and it’s probably that first thing that came to your mind: when we exercise, we eat more. Indeed, if you care about performance and recovery, you need and ought to eat more. I was once told by a cycling coach that it’s foolish to try to lose weight during the racing season. Not eating enough–which is what you need to do to lose weight–cuts your speed and your recovery. Diet in the off season when you’re just riding for fun, he said. Don’t hurt your performance by dieting.

But there’s another answer that I find intriguing. Our bodies’ efforts at maintaining weight are ingenious. It turns out that when we exercise more, we also move less the rest of the day. This isn’t intentional. It isn’t anything we decide to do. The idea is that our bodies decide for us.

I’m interested, and fascinated by, the way our bodies undercut our best efforts. Heavy exercisers, it turns out, often move less the rest of the day and so burn not that many more calories than if they hadn’t exercised at all. When not exercising, they’re chronic sitters!

The study which sets out to prove this is cited in the Gretchen Reynolds’ book The First 20 Minutes  and she writes about it in her New York Times Phys Ed blog too. Following a group of young men assigned to a heavy exercise program, researchers were surprised at how little weight they lost. Yes, they ate more but more surprisingly, “They also were resolutely inactive in the hours outside of exercise, the motion sensors show. When they weren’t working out, they were, for the most part, sitting. “I think they were fatigued,” Mr. Rosenkilde says.”

Some people say we ought to “listen to our bodies.” But in my experience our bodies are sneaky experts at staying the same size. They need to be ready for feasts and famines and those women with extra body fat are more reproductively successful.

It’s another argument in favour of short, sharp, intense Crossfit style workouts since they don’t seem to have this effect. Once again, it’s High Intensity Interval Training (HIT) for the win. Thirty minutes, says Reynolds, is the sweet spot for exercise.

And it’s yet one more argument against sitting.

Some personal observations:

  • In the past I’ve been a big fan of the hard exercise followed by flopping! It’s when I write best, physically exhausted and mentally alert. Without exercise, I’m a big fidgeter and pacer in a career that rewards focus, concentration, and long bouts of sitting. Now I’m working at a standing desk (at home anyway) and I’m liking the change. I’m also trying to incorporate more movement throughout my day. 
  • This puts me in a mind of a discussion members of my bike club used to have about our long Saturday morning rides. Some of us thought we ought to have shorter routes, say 100 km rather than 150 km, not because we couldn’t ride 150 km but rather because we wanted to do things with our families afterwards. The extra kilometers tipped us past the point where much was possible after other than a nap, a bath, and lounging about the house. It seemed all wrong to come home and then tell the kids that I couldn’t go to the park, go for a bike ride (yikes!), or walk the dog because I was too tired from all the bike riding!
  • While exercising itself doesn’t make much difference, changing your body composition does. A body with more muscle burns more calories throughout the day and so there’s good reasons to lift heavy weights. I know lots of women do long, slow cardio to lose weight (you know, the “fat loss” button on the exercise machine at the gym) but science says they ought to be lifting weights instead to get lean.
  • In terms of appetite, I think HIT is right on. Long, slow runs and bike rides make me famished. I can control what I eat after but it takes tremendous effort. Endurance exercise makes me hungry, whereas intense efforts have just the opposite effect.
  • Of course, why listen to a big person talk about exercise and weight loss? The truth is I’m terrific at weight loss. I’ve lost 50-70 lbs quite a few times. I’m a failure at maintaining the new lower weight, but that’s a puzzle for another time.
fitness · health

Stand up, get out of that chair, and get moving

Sitting is the new smoking. I’m sure by now you’ve heard that. And as someone who reads and writes professionally, activities traditionally done while seated, this has me worried. One theme in two of the books about fitness I’ve read recently, Gretchen Reynolds’ The First Twenty Minutes and A.J. Jacob’s Drop Dead Healthy–is that sitting is killing us.

And even getting physical activity each day, it turns out, isn’t enough to offset the risk of sitting. I’ve read these studies about the dangers of inactivity before and thought I didn’t have to worry. After all, I’m one of the most active people I know. I bike to work, I play soccer, I do Aikido, etc etc. But no.  It turns out that regular exercise can’t offset the metabolic death that kicks in from sitting, even just after 20 minutes of sitting. Reynolds now gets up from her desk every twenty minutes and runs around. Jacobs was so convinced of the evidence against sitting that he now writes at a treadmill desk–that’s how he wrote the fitness book–and he literally ‘runs’ his errands.

My preferred mode of being–in the past–was to physically exhaust myself through exercise and then with the body calm and the mind wide awake turn to my academic work. I felt good about the hours at the desk because it was usually preceded by one to two hours of intense exercise–hill repeats, intervals on the track, etc. I do my best writing that way: physically exhausted, mentally charged up and alert. I liked it because it allowed me to sit still. Otherwise, I fidget and get up and wander around.  It turns out that all that fidgeting is a a good thing, fitness wise.

So what to do? Well, at home I’m experimenting with a standing desk. See photo below. It’s still very much a work in progress but I like it a lot. I waste less time at the computer. When I’m there, I work. I stand on a pad (like people who work at cash registers) and I have a yoga block to shift my posture around occasionally. My back also feels a lot better. I’ve had physio and posture analysis done after back pain and it turns out that for a professional sitter, my sitting sucks. The good news is that I have excellent standing, walking, running, biking posture. I think maybe I was meant to be something other than a professor of philosophy. The only challenge with my standing desk is after runs and bike rides when I find myself wanting to sit but then I take my lap top to the sofa for awhile and that works too.  I’m not sure what to do at the university as I like to sit when I chat with students. I’m still trying to decide about that. In an ideal world I’d have an adjustable height desk but I suspect they are out of the university’s budget. I’ll report back.

Read more here:

A.J. Jacobs, Sitting is Terrible for Your Health

Gretchen Reynolds: Get Up. Get Out. Don’t Sit.

Andre Picard: Why the sedentary life is killing us