To Stand or To Sit at Work: An Auto-Analytics Experiment
It's a new year, and here come the resolutions that lead to new gym memberships and eventually, abandoned treadmills. Office workers are especially prone to make these promises to get healthy, with their desk jobs often making them sedentary. I am one of those workers (though, without the resolution), and I wondered if I could use the burgeoning field of auto-analytics — collecting and analyzing data about myself — to make my life more active without having to join a gym.
My foray into office fitness actually began years ago with a set of under-desk pedals. It was early into my first corporate job and I wasn't yet used to what I call "Spam Butt" — a dead, squishy feeling in the posterior that I associate with sitting for too long. The pedals cost me twenty-five cents at a yard sale. Not surprisingly, they squeaked and offered no resistance or feeling of exercise. They were good for a laugh (and how my colleagues did laugh), but if I wanted to be more active at work, I figured I'd need to switch from editing to coaching field hockey.
At HBR, I eventually began sitting on an exercise ball to combat Spam Butt. It was also good for a laugh (and great entertainment when colleagues' dogs or children stopped by), but it did help me feel more active at work. I even noticed an abdominal or two after a year. But while I was sitting on the yoga ball, a curious thing was happening all around me. Heads started popping up and staying up. Standing desks were all the rage. The latest wave of stories asking if sitting is killing you was making its way around my office. This one even featured a black claw of death about to snatch a slouching chair dweller. I was happy with the activity level I thought my exercise ball gave me, but how much was that really?
Then I read Babson researcher Jim Wilson's article "You, By the Numbers," and decided to really find out how much exercise it was. Wilson writes about the use of auto-analytics in the workplace with the hope that we use the tools to increase our self-awareness and become better at our jobs and more satisfied with our lives. With advice from Jim, my colleague researched headphones' effect on his productivity, and I launched an experiment to see if sitting in a chair, sitting on a ball, or standing would help me be more active at work.
My experiment was simple and imperfect, but that's part of the beauty of auto-analytics. You don't have to participate in a years-long research study to get enough information about yourself to put some data behind your decisions. I wore the Fitbit Ultra tracker (since surpassed by the Fitbit One), designed to measure steps, distance, calories burned, stairs climbed, and sleep. I spent two weeks each sitting in a chair, sitting on an exercise ball, and using a standing desk. I kept track of my steps per day in the office to see if one configuration made me more active than another. And, I monitored how I felt overall during each portion.
Would sitting in a chair prove to be the laziest of all, as I suspected? Would standing make me more apt to turn and walk to a colleague instead of emailing? Would the near constant motion of sitting on a ball trump standing? I clipped on the Fitbit to find out.
It was soon apparent that the promises of auto-analytics are huge, but still limited by our humanness. Set it and forget it only works if you first remember to set it. Several times, after taking the Fitbit off to workout in the rain or sand, I forgot to put it back on and thereby missed a day of tracking. And near the end of my experiment when I didn't take it off on a hot day, it met its demise — death by sweat from a 10K.
Still, after 6 weeks, the results were clear. No matter what I did, I was slug-like at work. There were pros and cons for each configuration. Standing thwarted Spam Butt but sometimes led to sore hamstrings. Sitting in a chair seemed like cheating, but was the most comfortable place to be when that 3:00pm energy crash set in. Balancing on the exercise ball was far better than sitting in the chair, but now seemed lazy next to standing.
No matter the configuration, my weekly results looked like this, which includes running and playing in field hockey games:
Yes, sleep is lumped into the sedentary category (and I do get a fair amount of sleep), but it's still disheartening.
In the end I found that whatever configuration I used, I only hovered around 2500 steps in the office during a typical workday. I'll leave it to the doctors and ergonomics experts to argue over the merits of sitting vs standing for overall health and productivity, but thanks to auto-analytics, I know that one configuration doesn't make me more prone to being more active than another. With that knowledge, I now mix standing and sitting without agonizing over which I should be pushing myself to do. I try to walk around the office as much as I can, and even stretch at my desk from time to time. But my experiment confirmed what I suspected in my first 9-5. If I want to really be active at work, I'm going to need a coach's uniform.