Arise, office workers of the world! You have nothing to lose but your chairs. And even if they are of supple executive leather or high-tech Aeron mesh, those chairs are lethal. A raft of recent medical research has shown that the more time a person spends sitting every day, the more likely he or she is to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and, worst of all, an early death. One recent study, from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., followed 17,000 Canadians over 12 years and found that those who sat for most of the day were 54 percent more likely to die of heart attacks than those who didn’t. The findings have spawned a new diagnosis: “sitting disease.” And strikingly, even regular exercise and a healthy diet don’t protect you—sitting in a chair for eight hours after going to the gym and munching on tempeh is still sitting.
For those in nonsedentary lines of work these findings are probably validating. But most Americans have the sort of jobs where they sit at desks while day by day their arteries harden and their bellies soften. The good news is that we don’t have to revert to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to combat this silent assassin. Many of the problems can be solved, researchers say, simply by getting up: standing and stretching once an hour or walking down the hall to talk to someone rather than sending an e-mail. A growing number of office workers, though, are opting for something more radical—they’re going seatless. Their savior is the standing desk.
Standing desks aren’t new. Ernest Hemingway used one; so did Vladimir Nabokov, Winston Churchill, and Henry Clay. Thomas Jefferson designed his own. Standing-desk proponents claim Leonardo da Vinci as one of theirs, as well as Michelangelo, at least when he wasn’t on his back painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. As Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld spent his days dashing off his infamous “snowflake” memos from a stand-up desk. Ever the standing evangelist, he questioned limits on how long Guantanamo interrogators could keep detainees on their feet in a “stress position.” “I stand for 8-10 hours a day,” he wrote at the bottom of one memo. “Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”
Today, though, the standing desk is going mainstream, especially in the tech world, with its office perks and geekish penchant for workspace optimization. Standing desks have been spotted at Google, Facebook, Twitter, and AOL. Asana, a startup launched by a Facebook co-founder, provides employees with motorized desks that adjust from standing to sitting height at the touch of a button. Office furniture maker Steelcase says sales of its stand-up desks are growing at four times the rate of its conventional desks, and Ergo Desktop, a small firm that makes an attachment that converts a normal desk into a standing one, says this year’s sales are on pace to triple last year’s.
Like the proponents of macrobiotics and barefoot running, today’s antisitting crusaders argue that our modern lifestyle—with its roughage-free processed foods, foam-cushioned shoes, Barcaloungers, and swivel chairs—has, by cosseting the body, actually caused it to break down. When we sit our muscles atrophy, our back crimps, and our metabolism slows. As James Levine, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist, has written, “[A] growing body of evidence suggests that chair-living is lethal. Of concern is that for most people in the developed world chair-living is the norm.”
Yet if sitting is deadly, standing all day can also be hard on the body. It puts more strain on the heart and can increase the likelihood of atherosclerosis and varicose veins. “You’ve got to remember, 100 years ago most work was done with people standing up, and that’s why we tried to sit people down, because there are a number of problems,” says Alan Hedge, a design and ergonomics professor at Cornell University. “Standing all day is really, really not good for you.”
The watchword among ergonomists these days is “postural rotation”: sit a little, stand a little, then repeat. Michael Mullen is a designer at Oregon–based Anthro, which makes Steve’s Station, an adjustable standing desk. (“Steve” is another designer at the firm.) Mullen divides his workday between standing up to sketch on a tablet computer and sitting to do computer-aided design on his PC. He says many of the workers at Anthro’s client companies settle into a similar routine: “Maybe they stand for the morning, then sit in the afternoon. Or they do an hour or two sitting, and then stand for relief.” So-called sit-stand desks such as Steve’s Station or the cheaper WorkFit line, from Ergotron, are built for this kind of variation. In Denmark employers are required by law to provide their employees with adjustable desks. Research by Hedge and others, however, suggests that sit-stand desks themselves are no panacea. Hedge looked at how the desks were adopted at Intel and found that when the novelty wore off, users tended to stop adjusting them and just stayed seated all the time.
Those workers who think they can keep to a strict postural rotation regime, though, and don’t happen to work at an ergonomically progressive place such as Google, or in Denmark, face another challenge: convincing their employer to install new furniture. One strategy might be to walk around the office gingerly, touching one’s back and giving off an air of litigiousness. Vanessa Friedman is an ergonomics consultant for mid- to large-size companies. Most of the businesses that call her to help install standing desks, she says, do so after a worker’s compensation claim. “In California, where we are, back injuries commonly cost $60,000. After that, $1,500 on a desk doesn’t seem like a lot to spend,” she says. If sitting disease catches on as a diagnosis, she points out, claims are likely to increase.
A few companies, including Mutual of Omaha and Blue Cross Blue Shield, have gone one step further: They’ve installed desks with treadmills, allowing some of their employees to work while walking in place (slowly, at speeds less than two miles per hour). Even at that pace, treadmill desks leave their sitting and standing brethren in the dust healthwise, their champions claim. The writer A.J. Jacobs jury-rigged one in his home office as part of his research for his book Drop Dead Healthy, a gonzo exploration of today’s wellness research. He still uses it, balancing his laptop on two photo albums and a large toy train whistle stacked on a treadmill he originally bought to run on. “I’m a great believer. I’m on it right now. I try to get to five miles a day,” he told me when we spoke by phone. “It gets rid of all my excess energy. It also keeps me awake. Now when I sit down and try to work while sitting, I fall asleep.”