In recent weeks I’ve noticed a movement of sorts around the office where I spend a large portion of my life. Several of my young colleagues are standing in their cubes, tapping away at computers that are perched on a box atop their desks. I’m told this is ergonomically advantageous, but I’ve been skeptical. It’s just that I’ve been slouching in front of typewriters and computers for the better part of 40 years with few ill effects — as far as I can tell.
Yes, I’ve read about the studies that warn office dwellers that their butt-in-the-chair inclinations can shorten their lifespan. And, yes, those reports make me sit up straighter and move to the edge of my chair — better for the core, easier on the back, maybe even burns a few more calories. But stand up? I don’t think so. Not really seeing the upside.
Then I stumbled upon a story describing an experiment in a Texas grade school where the students were given stand-up desks and pretty quickly began performing better than they had been when they were sitting down. Researchers followed 300 children in second, third, and fourth grades for an entire year and found that giving them the option to stand from time to time improved their engagement in class — they answered questions more readily, participated in class discussions more frequently, and disrupted class less frequently.
Here’s how Mark Benden, PhD, associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, put it:
“Standing workstations reduce disruptive behavior problems and increase students’ attention or academic behavioral engagement by providing students with a different method for completing academic tasks (like standing) that breaks up the monotony of seated work. Considerable research indicates that academic behavorial engagement is the most important contributor to student achievement. Simply put, we think better on our feet than in our seat.”
This reminded me of the time several years ago, just after we pulled our struggling son out of the third grade and My Lovely Wife began teaching him at home. I came home from work one evening and found MLW in the dining room giving a philosophy lesson as our young Man Of Few Words circled the table on rollerblades, absorbing it all in a way he never could at school. (Just FYI: Our MOFW, now 24, is gainfully employed as one of those Mac Geniuses who fix your computer when you’ve given up all hope of ever computing again.)
Apparently, the advantages of getting vertical while you’re thinking isn’t limited to the young, either. A new study from Seattle’s venerable Group Health Research Institute found that encouraging geezers like me to get up out of our chairs made them more productive, improved their mobility, and fended off depression. All this by getting them to stand up for only an additional 27 minutes each day.
So, the other day, when I found myself hunched over my desk, staring at my monitor, I pushed myself away from my computer, grabbed an unused set of plastic file organizers, slid it beneath my laptop, and stood up.
I’d like to report this was a revelation, a “eureka” moment that changed my entire view of the work world, but that would not be accurate. By the end of the day, my left knee was killing me from holding me upright for so long.
I mentioned this to My Fitness Guru the next day as he was standing at his desk nearby. He looked at me with a mixture of humor and sympathy. “Um, you don’t stand up all day,” he said. “Mix it up a little.”
It’s just like me, of course, to take things to the extreme. Later that morning, I propped up my computer again and set to work. It wasn’t too bad, actually. I found myself shifting my weight from side to side some of the time, pacing a bit as I puzzled over an editorial dilemma, and feeling my shoulders relax in a way that was surprisingly refreshing.
In the days since, I’ve been able to incorporate the standing and sitting mix into my workday with no complaints. I’m not sure it’s making me any smarter than those fourth-graders in Texas, but it has given me a new perspective on office life — about three feet higher than usual, to be exact. And the view from up here isn’t bad at all.