Why your office chair might be killing you

Office chairs are stacked together on a stand at the 100% Design Exhibition at Earl's Court in London.

Sitting, the innocent act of plopping down in your seat, is the smoking of our generation. Image: REUTERS/Andrew Winning

Ryan Holmes
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Maybe it’s time for a Surgeon General’s Warning: “Using this product may lead to heart disease, obesity, cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Prolonged exposure has been linked to premature death. Use at your own risk.”

I’m not talking about cigarettes. I’m talking about chairs.

Sitting, the innocent act of plopping down in your seat, is the smoking of our generation. Just like lighting up used to be, the sitting habit is so pervasive, so universally accepted, as to be almost invisible. And just as was the case with smoking, scientists are slowly gathering an irrefutable body of evidence showing that sitting for long periods literally takes years off your life.

Case in point: A 2009 study of 17,000 people found that those who spent most of the day sitting were 54% more likely to die of heart attacks. An even larger 2010 study of 123,000 people showed that men who sit six or more hours a day have a 20% higher overall death rate than men who sit three or fewer hours. For women, the death rate is 40% higher. More recently, an extensive review of 43 studies found that people who sit for long hours each day have a 24% greater risk of colon cancer, 32% greater risk of endometrial cancer and 21% greater risk of lung cancer.

Associations of daily total sitting time with all-cause mortality risk with adjustment for physical activity. Image: PLOS One Journal

I know what you’re thinking: sure, those are scary stats, but all those unhealthy sitters were probably couch potatoes who never got any exercise. Nope. Research indicates that even if you get lots of exercise when you’re not sitting, you still face these same risks. In other words, you could be a gym rat or a long distance runner with a resting pulse rate of 40 beats per minute, but if you’re sitting most of the day, you’re doing irreparable harm to your body. Exercise won’t help you any more than would trying to “counter a pack-a-day smoking habit by jogging,” writes New York Times reporter James Vlahos.

The moment you sit, your muscles begin to go silent. Your energy consumption drops to a meagre one calorie per minute, about a third of the walking rate. Insulin effectiveness plummets, increasing the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Enzymes responsible for vacuuming up fat in the bloodstream plunge, causing levels of HDL (the “good” cholesterol) to dip. The risk of obesity increases, too. “Excessive sitting is a lethal activity,” explains Dr. James Levine, a Mayo Clinic researcher who began sounding the sitting alarm nearly 20 years ago. In no uncertain terms, your chair is killing you.

But in spite all of the studies and publicity (there’s even a TED Talk about the dangers of sitting with 1.6 million views), lots of us still spend most of the day on our backsides. The average American, in fact, sits about eight hours per day, each and every day of the week, every week of the year. Habits are hard to break, and there’s something undeniably addictive about taking a load off and slumping into a chair. But I have a theory that part of the problem may be technological, not cultural. We’re still on our butts because desks that let you stand up just aren’t plentiful enough, cheap enough or flexible enough for the bulk of users.

A recent search for “standing desks” on Amazon, for instance, produced 30,020 results. While options are diverse, none are perfect and few are cheap. Basic full-size standing desks - sturdy, waist-high workstations that let you work on your feet - start at a few hundred dollars. Decent desktop models - accessories you put on top of your old-fashioned desk - start around $100. Neither of these solutions are really ideal. Standing all day, as any physical therapist will tell you, brings its own set of health problems, from sore feet and swollen legs to lower back and neck complications.

A proper desk actually needs to be fully adjustable between standing and sitting positions. And while we’re starting to see some adjustable options, prices are prohibitively expense, with fancy, motorized versions running into the thousands of dollars. I haven’t even gotten into the fact that almost all of these standing desks are big and bulky, requiring major furniture rearrangements. Given the expense and the logistics involved, it’s little wonder we’re all still glued to our seats.

If I sound obsessed about this subject, there’s a reason. Several years ago, I was on a quest for the perfect standing desk. Injuries from years of judo and ultimate frisbee had left me with herniated discs and I couldn’t sit for more than a few hours at a time. I needed a desk that could go back and forth between sitting and standing. The solution had to be dirt cheap, since I had sunk my life’s savings into a social media company called Hootsuite. And since we were in start-up mode - constantly outgrowing spaces and shifting seating arrangements - the desk had to be lightweight and easy to move from place to place.

Nothing on the market really fit the bill. In classic hacker spirit, we looked into DIY options. The famous “IKEA standing desk hack” worked for a while. For around $50, we were able to cobble together an IKEA table and shelf into a crude approximation of a standing desk. But these desks are bulky and, as we began to scale from dozens to hundreds of employees, the cost grew prohibitive.

So I started playing around with my own models. After about a week, I had rigged up something with cardboard and duct tape that could sit on top of my existing desk. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. It had a spot for my Macbook and a ledge below for a wireless keyboard and mouse. Best of all, it was collapsible and hardly weighed anything. When I was done standing, I could fold it down in a few seconds and stash it away or I could throw it into the backseat of my car to use at home.

After enough people asked me where they could get one, I realized I might be onto something. I sat down with some design friends and started investigating the possibility of turning my homemade model into a viable product. A few years later, the result is a standing desk that weighs less than two pounds and collapses down to less than one-inch wide.

Whether it will help us reach a tipping point in the standing revolution remains to be seen. We’ve been sitting for a long time and - much like smoking was 50 years ago - it’s part of our culture, both in the workplace and at home. But it helps to remember that it wasn’t always that way. Even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, office workers generally stood: clerks, accountants and managers, alike. And some of history’s brightest minds - Leonardo, Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few - were all steadfast standers. Maybe all it will take is a bit of DIY technology to finally get the rest of us on our feet, too.

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