Rex Huppke's I Just Work Here: Beware the attack of the killer office chairs
I’M SITTING down while writing this column. That’s a pretty daring move on my part.
You see, I recently spoke with James Levine, author of the new book, “Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.” He schooled me on the scary science of the sedentary work life, and let me tell you, fellow sitting enthusiasts, it does not look good for us.
Have a seat — or perhaps don’t — and ingest this excerpt from Levine’s book:
“Chair addiction — like the alcoholic thirsting for another Scotch — is the constant need we have developed to sit. We slouch from bed to car seat, to work seat, to sofa. The cost is too great; for every hour we sit, two hours of our lives walk away — lost forever.”
Levine is director of the Mayo Clinic/Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and he has been fighting a war on chairs for many years now. He is feared by recliners, davenports and lumbar-supporting office chairs the world over.
Levine’s basic argument — backed by years of research — is that the human body is not designed to sit for long periods of time. Rather, we are structurally and physiologically intended to be upright, running from saber-toothed tigers and gathering wood and tending crops and such. But the notable dearth of saber-toothed tigers and the conveniences of modern life have stealthily eliminated the need for constant standing and moving about.
“This has happened over generations, so the idea that my ancestors were agriculturalist and only sitting down three times a day, something like that cannot even be contemplated, but it’s true,” Levine said. “The fact that we’ve become immersed in this chair-like environment crept up on us because it occurred slowly.”
So we work on our butts, email co-workers rather than walk 20 feet to speak with them and roll our comfy chairs down to Bob’s cubicle because he brought doughnuts. But our bodies haven’t undergone a structural change to adapt to this way of life, and Levine argues convincingly that we’re overlooking the harm caused by our motionlessness.
When you’re seated, Levine said, your body’s weight bearing system — the muscles and skeleton — relax and effectively “go offline.”
“Your metabolism slows down. When you sit down, instead of sugar rushing into your muscles, it’s now swirling around in your blood stream. So are the body fats, the triglycerides. Your brain-firing rate switches down, as does the muscle-firing rate. That’s why people sitting at their computer at two in the afternoon are falling asleep.”
I always thought that was because it was nap time.
One might think our bodies would adapt to this more sedentary lifestyle, but Levine said all that has changed is the medical community’s ability to combat the ill effects of so much sitting.
“Our adaptation has been to genetically modify the human or chemically modify the human to better fit the chair-based lifestyle,” he said. “All our children are going to get pills to mitigate against chronic diseases, because that’s a way of adaption to a situation. It’s a terrifying idea.”
Indeed it is, but I wonder if it’s enough to convince us to surrender the sitting position we know and love.
You’ve likely seen a person or two in your workplace with either a standing desk or a regular desk with a computer monitor up on boxes so they can stand and work. It looks odd, and that alone will stop many from making the switch.
And a workplace edict assigning everyone a standing desk would likely spark revolt.
“I found very early on that people don’t like being told what to do and people don’t like paternalism,” Levine said.
But I do think all of us — those more drawn to increased standing and those who fear it — can take something positive from the good doctor’s chair-abolishing crusade. At the very least, it should plant a thought in our heads that more movement is a good thing.
Levine explained why standing while working leads to additional activity: “People who start standing and working generally increase their movement about one or two hours extra a day. What actually happens is that once you’re standing up, the whole dynamic of the office changes. If you’re standing up you can actually see across the office. Say you want to ask someone a question, you’re more likely to walk across the office to talk to Sheila. Once you’re off your bottom, you will walk more because you’re standing up. Also, if you work when you stand up, you tend to not stand still. That activity adds up.”
Levine said workers can help themselves by making sure that they move around as little as 10 minutes every hour. So even if you don’t want to work standing up, just add some movement to other parts of your day.
“Instead of meeting up at Starbucks and sitting down, take a little stroll instead,” Levine said. “Have meetings that are walk-and-talk. It’s totally doable, with a little imagination.”
Our chairs, wonderful though they may be, have dulled our thinking. We go through our days trying to move as little as possible, and that can’t be good for our health. Whether you believe Levine’s research or not, there’s a logic here that’s difficult to deny.
Walk around and a bit and give it some thought. And keep an eye on that chair of yours — I hear those things are trying to kill us.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.