By Peter Koch
on 7.11.14
Photo by Peter Koch

Stand up, sit down, stand up again; throw in a few squats and ample weight-shifting, for variety’s sake. That’s become a necessary part of my writing routine for the past week while working from an adjustable-height standing desk. It’s been a short experiment, but already my leg muscles ache and I’m sleeping harder at night. After ten years of desk jockeying, though, I’m willing to put up with the discomfort if it might save me from the damage all that sitting has done. Sound melodramatic? It’s not.

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I’ve always known that sitting on my butt all day can make my back sore or inflate my spare tire. I’ve also believed the conventional wisdom that watching my diet and getting exercise — I regularly run, bike and do bodyweight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups — could effectively offset sitting’s inactivity. While it appears to have worked on the surface — my muscles are strong enough, my legs can pound out ten miles on a whim and my body fat is at roughly college levels — a growing body of scientific evidence shows it’s all an illusion.

Sitting has, in fact, been killing me. As soon as I sit, major muscle groups effectively shut down, causing me all sorts of harm on the metabolic (read: invisible) level. My calorie-burning rate plummets to roughly one per minute, my insulin loses much of its ability to reduce blood sugar and the enzymes responsible for breaking down fat in my bloodstream plunge. All of that puts me at far greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and even depression. These are problems I can’t run (or bike) away from; sitting, like smoking, is an independent risk factor.

My muscles are slowly adjusting to marathon bouts of standing, and I feel more alert and focused (especially come mid-afternoon) in the rarefied air at 46 inches.

Luckily, the cure is relatively simple: stand up. Or, more accurately, don’t sit all day. So I’ve taken up working at a motor-driven adjustable-height standing desk, the UpDesk PowerUp Series III, which puts function over form and goes for $949 ($50-$100 more for the two larger sizes).

At the start of my day, the desk is already at standing level, exactly 46 inches off the ground. I just walk up to it, open my laptop and begin work. Gone is the ritual of prepping my workspace so all the necessities — water, snack, smartphone, voice recorder, headphones, notebook and pen — are in arm’s reach before plopping, with a kind of finality, into the chair.

After half an hour of standing mannequin-still, fatigue begins setting in, so I widen my stance or shift my weight from side to side. Over the next 30 minutes to an hour, a kind of dance ensues. I’ll alternate standing on one foot, rocking back and forth, leaning an elbow on the desk and generally doing whatever it takes to relieve the creeping ache in my legs. It sounds crazy, but standing is a real workout when you’ve spent a decade sitting all day; this is a chief reason having an adjustable-height makes sense for me.

When I’m sick of standing, I simply push a button that lowers the desk (one of the UpDesk’s three programmable memory buttons automatically adjusts to my ideal sitting height of 30 inches) with a soft mechanical whir, and sit. During my two- or three-week transition, fatigue, achy quads, calves and feet will be de rigueur. Easing the transition is crucial to sticking with it, so I alternate sitting and standing all day long. Last week, it was every 30 to 45 minutes. Now it’s every 60 to 90.

George Plimpton observed in The Paris Review that Ernest Hemingway worked standing “in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu.” Badass that he was, Hemingway said it made him feel “more physical”. A week of standing at the UpDesk is making me feel more physical soreness and exhaustion.

But my muscles are slowly adjusting to marathon bouts of standing, and I feel more alert and focused (especially come mid-afternoon) in the rarefied air at 46 inches. And, most importantly, I know that standing is improving my fitness and making me healthier on the impossible-to-see metabolic level. That’s definitely worth standing up for. Now, if only I could track down a kudu skin.

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