Sitting has been called ‘the new smoking’. Kate Faithfull-Williams investigates whether we need to be giving it up for good…
It’s 3pm on a Friday afternoon and you’re wandering down the street with your colleague. Deeply engrossed in conversation, you’re oblivious to others hurrying past, breaking your attention from one another only momentarily to take a sip of coffee at the traffic lights. But this isn’t a clandestine shopping trip or a sneakily extended caffeine run. This is your weekly progress report with your line manager – and sitting down isn’t allowed.
It might sound exhausting, but the signs are already there: increasing numbers of UK workplaces have ditched the desk chair in favour of standing desks and walking-based pitching sessions. Apple and Google have long offered their British staff the option of upright desks, while hot-desking hotspots such as Netil House in Hackney provide ‘standing stations’ for their freelancers.
Ever a trendsetter, Victoria Beckham is a fan of vertical employment – she went viral after trying out a treadmill desk way back in 2014, and dubbed the concept ‘genius’. Meanwhile, over in Silicon Valley, tech-types have long been a fan of ‘walking meetings’ – or in Mark Zuckerberg’s case, interviews: personally leading prospective Facebook employees on a trail through the woods in Palo Alto before deciding whether or not they’ve got the job.
Of course, there is science behind the movement-movement – and it’s not just physical. Research from the Texas A&M Health Science Centre has found switching to standing could increase your productivity by a pretty spectacular 46%, and the ‘Take-A-Stand Project’ conducted by Ergotron (who conveniently manufacture standing desks) has discovered that workers who use elevated workspaces will see soaring energy levels, increased focus and reduced depression over the course of seven weeks. And if your stress levels are high, they reckon that’s another reason to upend your working routines – the same study claimed that within the space of a fortnight, 33% of individuals noted a drop in anxiety levels.
If that’s not enough, experts believe your body is affected as well as your brain. In March 2019, researchers at Queen’s University Belfast found that the NHS spends at least £700m a year treating illnesses exacerbated by sedentary behaviour, and that more than 69,000 deaths in the UK could have been prevented in 2016 if people didn’t sit down for long periods.
The author of Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You And What You Can Do About It, Dr James Levine, who famously called sitting ‘the new smoking’, cites a Harvard paper claiming individuals who spend more than six hours a day in their chair (that’s between 65% and 75% of us, apparently) are at an increased long-term risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancer (specifically ‘female’ cancers linked to body fat and oestrogen levels) – not to mention diabetes and back pain. Even the World Health Organisation agrees, suggesting that even cycling to work in the morning and hitting the gym at night isn’t enough to counteract the negative health impact of remaining deskbound for the rest of the day.
So far, so statistically convincing, but the practicalities of standing tall aren’t totally straightforward. The average Brit may sit for an average of 8.9 hours a day, but evidence suggests we’re culturally conditioned to do so – along with the rest of the Western world. Leandro Rezende, from the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Sao Paulo, believes that the current global economic situation could be to blame for our increasingly sedentary lifestyles – suggesting that the focus on ‘labour-saving devices’ has trickled down into every area of our day-to-day, while urban development (not to mention the housing crisis) sees us travelling so far to get to work, walking from home is no longer the default option.
In other words, we may be elbowing strangers out of the way to get a seat on the commute – but it’s not necessarily because we’re lazy.
Plus, for all the long-term gains, there’s a lot of short-term pain associated with standing up. Even if you can manage to overcome the embarrassment of standing next to your cross-legged colleagues in the conference room, the immediate physical downsides might not be worth it. Swollen ankles, foot pain, back pain and fatigue are all risks associated with suddenly being on your feet all day, and despite the aforementioned studies, your brain power may not actually be significantly increased by the simple matter of standing up.
In fact, one study published in open-access journal PLoS One found that subjects who sat down at work could remember lists of words more accurately, type faster and perform basic mental maths better than those who stood at their desk all day.
Instead, experts believe Zuckerberg might be onto something, revealing that workers who walk (be that around the office every thirty minutes, or constantly on a Beckham-style treadmill) are those who see the biggest benefits.
“You become a little taller, because you’re relieving the pressure on your spine, and you increase your venous return – the rate of blood flow back to your heart – which gives you more energy,” says osteopath Leah Hearle, who practises at the Isokinetic Clinic on London’s Harley Street.
Mentally, it could be helpful too. She reckons the action of moving (rather than simply standing) can make you more alert and even more positive. “When you’re not slumped over your keyboard, your respiratory system can function optimally, increasing oxygen to your brain.”
So should you stand, walk, or just carry on sitting down – with a bit more movement thrown in? Stylist puts the three techniques to the test and tracked some vital statistics…
Should we walk and work?
Alexandra Jones spent a week at a treadmill desk.
It’s 5pm on day one, and I’m writing a feature while pacing at 3.3km per hour, when a realisation hits me: the daily 4pm sugar-slump has been and gone and I didn’t even notice. If you walked into the Stylist office during any other week at this time, you’d be unlikely to find me at my computer (sorry, boss). I’m usually at the corner shop buying a Bounty, in the kitchen eating a spoonful of peanut butter or dolefully scouring colleagues’ desks for snacks. But after just one day at the treadmill desk (thetreadmilldeskstore.co.uk), it seems my craving for sweets has vanished. In fact, more than just keeping hunger at bay, walking continuously since midday has left me feeling positively clear-headed.
It’s a happy (and unexpected) side-effect. Before the experiment, I expected to feel a bit fitter and maybe burn a few extra calories – but I didn’t imagine that walking for seven hours a day would improve my mental acuity. I realise I’m making faster decisions and blast through a 2,000 word article in an afternoon (this would usually take me two days). By the end of the second day, I feel like I’ve had an epiphany – ‘walking and working is the future,’ I scribble in my notebook, possibly a little high on exercise-fuelled endorphins. I’ve walked almost 20km in just one day and other than a little ache in my calves, I don’t feel tired at all.
Sadly, working ‘faster’ does not necessarily mean ‘better’, as I realise on day three when I get my article back from the editor full of red-pen marks. By day four, I’m finding it much more difficult to focus, and I even send a rather embarrassing ‘reply all’ to the office (a note about Jaffa cakes that was meant for just one colleague). It feels as if the portion of my brain that I rely on for deeper concentration is literally being used to put one foot in front of the other.
By the end of the week, I’m mentally and physically worn out, and my lower back aches to such an extent that I skip my Saturday morning run. Still, I don’t feel guilty, since discovering that the long-term health benefits from my week of walking, such as developing a stronger spine and increasing my muscle endurance, far outdo that of a single jog around the park. It’s hard to quantify, but I also feel less anxious and more positive, probably due to the steady endorphin release over the week. In fact, I realise I’d happily sign up to use a treadmill desk semi-permanently – for the 40% of the day I spend emailing, organising and researching, it’s ideal. It’s only the rest of the time, when I really need to concentrate, that I miss my old chair.
Should we stand all day?
Katie O’Malley spent a week working at an Eiger standing desk (eigerstandingdesks.com).
Until this week, I’d never thought about how tricky it is to drink a cup of tea while standing up. I’ve stood for hours at festivals swigging from bottles of booze but it turns out sipping hot tea while standing at your desk is surprisingly difficult. Still, a few spillages weren’t going to put me off. For someone who, aged six, stood for four hours in the rain waiting for Britney Spears’ autograph (in vain, I might add), I figured it wouldn’t be too hard.
My first morning felt bizarrely normal – I was engrossed in writing, answering emails and getting on with my work. However, by lunchtime, the novelty had worn off. It wasn’t funny anymore, and over the course of the afternoon, I became increasingly cranky. It didn’t help that while I usually have good posture when I sit, as soon as I was standing up, I found myself completely unsure of how to hold myself.
By day two, I’d developed a pain in my lower back – and it remained there for the whole week. I had to sneak away to the loo for five minutes just so I could sit down. Eventually, the incessant aching became so distracting that it took me twice as long to write my features.
By day three, my aforementioned drinking problem had me forgoing a cuppa altogether – to which I promptly attributed my new end-of-day headaches – and by Wednesday I’d started cancelling any after-work plans that didn’t involve sitting down. But as the week went on, I realised I was becoming more outgoing. I was more forceful with my pitches and felt more self-assured when it came to speaking up. It was as if the standing was helping me to stand up for myself.
It was a long five days, but while I didn’t see any short term health benefits (it takes up to a month for your muscles to strengthen), the impact on my confidence has lasted. When you perch behind a screen, it’s easy to go unnoticed, but the second you stand up, you’re the centre of attention – which isn’t always a bad thing.
Should we take sitting breaks?
Chloe Sharp got up from her desk every 30 minutes for a week.
After eagerly volunteering for the ‘standing up’ experiment, I was a little disappointed when I got what I deemed the short straw: annoying my colleagues with an alarm every half an hour and walking around for five minutes at a time. Known as the ‘Pomodoro Technique’, my challenge didn’t seem very, well, challenging.
Within the first couple of hours, I realised it was going to be harder than I’d thought. As a general rule, I’m pretty productive every morning, but experience a steady slump from 3 to 6pm when I can struggle to concentrate. So my productivity depends on me rattling through my to-do list before lunch.
It felt like every time I was engrossed in my work, my alarm would go off. It wasn’t always possible to drop everything instantly, so I found myself jumping to my feet, hovering over my desk while I finished a task, then wandering over to chat to a colleague on the other side of the room – and outstaying my welcome in order to hit my five-minute standing target.
Still, while my productivity was suffering thanks to 14 daily alarms, by day three I noticed my regular headaches were less intense and my eyes felt less dry thanks to regular screen breaks. After work, I felt more energised too: I was less tempted to sit on the sofa with a ready meal, and I began to be more productive during my five-minute work interludes, as well. Rather than just chatting to my colleagues I began getting some fresh air, or watering the office plants.
It took four days for my body clock to truly adjust to my new regime – but by the end of the week, it felt like a natural rhythm to be regularly getting up. In fact, the alarms stopped feeling quite as necessary and I even started to get up without prompting. A week on and I might have ditched the alarms, but I’m far more likely to walk over to chat to someone across the office rather than emailing, and as it stands (sorry), I feel like my work has improved too as I’m more alert during the day.
Photography: Gemma Day. Other images: Getty Images