A few years ago Jenni Lindsey waited with dread to board a rollercoaster at Silverwood Theme Park.
It wasn’t because of the stomach-churning drops: Lindsey worried about fitting into one of the rollercoaster’s seats.
“I was mortified,” she said. “Some people wonder if they’re going to get vertigo or throw up. I was scared they would kick me off their rollercoaster because I was too big.”
That was several years and 91 pounds ago. Lindsey undertook a series of small, daily changes to her life that helped her shed weight and stave off diabetes. She enrolled in Weight Watchers, began to take walks and started exercising.
Perhaps the most important change she undertook, however, was getting out of her desk chair at work and spending several hours a day at a standing work station.
For all the time, effort and money spent on appetite suppressants, fad diets and squeezing in brief workouts, research is coalescing around the simple idea that standing, rather than sitting, for most of your waking hours is critical to better health, brain function and productivity.
“So much of my day is spent at work that being able to stand and walk more, I think, made it possible for me (to lose weight),” Lindsey said.
The issue of standing vs. sitting has been studied extensively. The American College of Sports Medicine published an article entitled “Medical Hazards of Prolonged Sitting.” The venerable Mayo Clinic offers unsettling research findings that explain the dangers of sedentary physiology. The American Cancer Society found that sitting too much cuts life expectancy.
And author John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, says in a best-selling book, “Brain Rules,” that humans evolved and our brains developed while walking about a dozen miles a day.
“The brain still craves that experience, especially in sedentary populations like our own. … Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in long-term memory, reasoning, attention and problem-solving tasks,” according to Medina.These ideas are now, albeit slowly, being deployed in some workplaces, including Avista Corp., law offices, call centers, clinics and hospitals, where the special desks enable – even require – workers to climb out of their chairs and get onto their feet, said Craig Smith, director of physical therapy at Group Health Cooperative.
“If you’re chained to a chair at work, figure out how to get up and out of it – often,” he said.
Pilot program for treadmill desks
Lindsey’s weight gain came about quickly.
She had a daughter, and the resulting life and schedule changes led to a job change. She left her work in a LensCrafters lab where she spent most of her time standing and took a job with Pitney Bowes, the office equipment corporation that has a large call center in Spokane.
Lindsey, now 39, also sustained a couple of injuries that limited her mobility and made it harder for her to take part in sports she enjoyed, such as softball.
Pinned to her desk for eight hours a day and overeating, Lindsey tumbled into poor health.
“I was emotionally exhausted when I went home,” she said. “I didn’t have anything left for my daughter.
“The whole thing was just so hard, and I didn’t know where to start.”
Then, about three years ago, she read about a workplace pilot program.
Pitney Bowes wanted a handful of employees to try out new desks for several hours a day, five days a week. The desks were built on treadmills set to run about 1 to 2 miles per hour – a slow, steady pace.
Sharon Reynolds, an advanced nurse practitioner who runs the wellness center at the call center, said the employees participating in the pilot have demonstrated the merit of being active at work.
Employees lost weight and some even lowered their blood sugar levels.
Though standing work stations remain unorthodox in the American workplace, Reynolds believes the four in the Pitney Bowes office – each costing more than $4,000 – contributed to an overall healthier lifestyle for employees and boosted their productivity. The treadmill desks have become so popular that employees now can be assigned to one for an hour a day.
“The walk stations turned out to be a sort of tipping point for them,” said Reynolds.
She’s unsure if more such desks will be purchased, but the evidence points to standing stations producing healthier, more productive employees, Reynolds said.
The ‘inertia trap’
Standing desks have earned some humorous notoriety.
Fans of the NBC comedy “The Office” may recall character Dwight Schrute at his new standing desk expressing disgust toward his seated co-workers: “Every second you sit there is an hour off your life,” he says. “Look at all of you; I feel like you’re in a suicide cult.”
Evidence of the superiority of standing is just one piece of the weight-loss puzzle, which researchers have been trying to solve since long before the World Health Organization declared a global obesity epidemic in 1997.
In Spokane, for example, nearly one in three people are obese and the numbers continue to rise. The obesity rate here is higher than the rates in Washington state and nationally.
Recent studies have found that even people who run miles every day or attend aerobics classes are at increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers if they spend most of the rest of their day sitting.
Researchers say it’s about more than simple caloric burn.
Muscles produce beneficial enzymes called lipoprotein lipase. They help the body process fats. When muscles are flexed and used, even in low-intensity ways such as standing or fidgeting, lipoprotein lipase is produced.
When people sit, many of their larger leg muscles stop working and thus stop producing the enzyme.
In a 2010 study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers linked prolonged sitting with a higher risk of death, regardless of physical activity.
The findings were startling enough that study leader Alpa Patel advocates public health messages to encourage less time sitting along with advocating physical activity.
Much of the focus must be on the workplace, said Smith, of Group Health.
“It’s an inertia trap,” he said. “Think about an eight-hour day of someone in customer service: They’re on the phone and on the computer.
“The ads on television say be active one hour a day. That’s pointing at minimalist activity, but it’s a starting point. If we told people what they really should be doing, they would say, ‘That’s too hard, I’m not doing that.’ ”
People should take many small breaks, moving and stretching about once every 15 minutes, Smith said. It would be optimal if people walked about 12 miles every day, which means that they would spend more hours on their feet.
Lindsey said being active at work has rewarded her employer with better work and helps her be more active at home.
“I used to go home just dead on my feet,” she said. “Now I have lots more energy.”