Sep. 3, 2012 at 10:23 AM ET
By David Zax, Fast Company
If there are two characteristics that define me, they are my susceptibility to memes and my fear of death. So when a meme arrives telling me my life is in danger, I pay attention.
Over the last few years, the media has come alive with reports to the effect that sitting kills you. You may have seen the stories — in the New York Times, in HuffPo, on NPR. The gist of the argument is that a life whiled away before a desk wreaks a havoc on your health so great that even regular exercise cannot undo it. If you sit too much, no amount of penance at the bench press will save you. What the summer of 1975 did for sharks, what the fall of 2001 did for anthrax, the last few years have been doing for that seemingly innocuous object: the chair.
As study after study and health pundit after health pundit weighed in, I began to look at my chair in a new light. I had always liked my chair. It’s an elegant black swiveling thing whose seat and back are made out of a rubbery mesh that yields pleasingly when you sit on it. Its black leather arm rests raise and lower, turn inward and out. Passed on from my family, it always seemed a better chair than I deserved, actually — a chair I needed to work hard to earn. Without being entirely certain what this meant, I had been told it was “ergonomic,” an attribute I repeated to other admirers of my chair.
All of a sudden, though, the chair was a spidery, dangerous creature lurking beneath my desk. It was one of those seemingly banal objects, like Fitzgerald’s cut-glass bowl, that somehow contained a hex. My sedentary life as a journalist, I was told, was a death sentence. I was getting the chair.
There was a solution, though. A companion to the chair-of-death meme was another meme, one offering hope. If the new axiom was that sitting kills you, then at least there was a corollary: that standing saves you. That was how I first learned about the “standing desk.” A number of other Fast Company contributors became evangelists for the idea, in fact, and in seeking to set up a standing desk of my own (in the end, my dresser wound up being just the right height), I consulted helpful articles by Gina Trapani and Farhad Manjoo. I learned that Philip Roth writes while standing, as did Ernest Hemingway before him. Not only would I be fending off the Grim Reaper, I would also be joining a tradition of Great Standing Writers. I set up my computer atop my dresser and embarked upon a new adventure in productivity and health.
I lasted about a week.
Because the first thing I noticed about my standing desk was that it wasn’t particularly comfortable. It was also the second thing I noticed, and the third thing I noticed. In fact, I spent so much time noticing how much I didn’t want to be standing that there was little RAM left in my brain for the work ostensibly at hand — writing. For some tasks — a phone call here or there, a bit of email maintenance or record-keeping work — I was able to stand and deliver the work. But when it came time to really mull something, to marshal all my cognitive resources into a given story, all I wanted to do was take a seat.
So I returned to my chair, and I’m sitting there still. (Leaning back at the moment, in fact, with my feet up on my desk. Maybe this is what “ergonomic” means?) To those of you who haven’t tried sitting lately, I recommend it wholeheartedly. In fact, I find it to be a very natural position in which to work. If sitting is a wrong, I don’t want to be right; call me an unrepentant sitter.
The doctor's view
I presented my controversial thesis — that sitting is comfortable, and that you should do it — to Dr. Hidde P. Van der Ploeg, a senior researcher at the Department of Public and Occupational Health at the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam (you’ll find his name atop one of those studies warning of the dangers of sitting).
He was surprisingly reasonable. “I fully agree that sitting is darn comfortable,” the professor wrote me. “The problem is that many of us are doing more of it than is good for our health.” He doesn’t advocate standing to the exclusion of sitting —“standing all day is not recommended either and certainly not necessary for better health”— but rather a judicious mix of the two. Some people purchase unwieldy and expensive sitting-standing desks for this purpose, but I preferred another suggestion of Dr. Van der Ploeg’s: He mentioned friends from the IT sector who conduct standing meetings at work. “They find them much more efficient,” he said.
Next I called up Peter Galbert, a member of that now-maligned profession: chair making. How did he sleep at night, I asked, knowing that he created these murderous devices?
“I know plenty’s been said about them being bad for your overall health,” he said, “but about them killing you? Gosh, that’s a little bit of hyperbole, I’d say.”
But it was in the Times, I told him.
“Right now I’m sitting,” he said. “Are you sitting?”
“I am,” I admitted.
“Shocking,” he said. Galbert, who makes custom chairs from wood, launched into his philosophy of making and using chairs. “I’m sitting in a porch swing right now, but I’m moving — I’m pushing my legs, I’m moving around. I’m a big advocate of moving and sitting.”
Really, it's about sitting still
The real culprit, he said, wasn’t so much sitting, as sitting still. Try sitting in one of his rocking chairs, he said, and you’ll always be shifting, almost imperceptibly, but enough to rotate rest and exertion among different muscle groups. He referred me, further, to the innovative work of the designer Peter Opsvik, whose unusual chair designs often foster a sitting stance similar to a standing one —with the pelvis tilted forward and the spine therefore in a more natural, stacked position.
My daring, controversial thesis — that maybe sitting was kind of okay — was seeming less and less daring and controversial. A standing advocate allowed that sitting was permissible, at least in measured doses, and a chair maker had shown how sitting could be much like standing, if done properly.
If sitting wasn’t living on the edge — if clinging to my chair wasn’t a defiant act, like Chistopher Hitchens refusing to throw away his cigarettes — then what was? My mind flashed to a memory of a college professor, the poet J.D. McClatchy, reporting that he did all his reading and writing in the most zeitgeist-flouting posture of all — lying down in bed. I wrote him to ask if my memory served.
He confirmed that his workplace was, indeed, the bed. “I have never, in my 67 years, been able to find a comfortable chair” in which to read and write, he wrote (presumably from bed).
But what about Hemingway, I asked? Major writer: he must have been on to something, after all. “Hemingway and others used standing desks,” McClatchy conceded. “I always assumed it was because they had bad hemorrhoids.”
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