I grew up in a household of fitness nuts. My dad is the type of guy who, when driving through some hundred-degree Californian mining town, notices they’re holding a footrace, signs up for the footrace, and comes in first place. I’m the type of person who wouldn’t do that.
At some point my fitness phobia evolved into a sort of half-baked anti-gym philosophy. I reject gym culture! It strikes me as ridiculous to drive to a building to run in place for an hour. No, I do things the “European” way. Walk everywhere, take stairs, let the exercise be a natural part of my everyday life. And that’s what I’ve been doing for years now, walking up to six miles a day -- to my daughter’s school, to the grocery store, to the library. I even walked myself to the emergency room one time. People seem impressed. “Good for you,” they say.
But then I started reading about how unhealthy it is to live your life planted in a chair. I even heard sitting compared to smoking as far as dangerous habits go. One article described sitting as “the worst thing you do for your health.” Prolonged sitting is linked to increased rates in breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. All those hours on the couch can take two years off your life.
Sure, I might walk six miles on a good day, but that takes what -- a couple hours? Add an hour or two for cooking, cleaning and taking showers and I’m still sedentary for 12 hours. According to health experts, it’s dangerous to sit more than four to six hours a day -- total. And that advice goes for everyone, regardless of exercise level. In other words, daily workouts are great, but they don’t counteract the negative effects of sitting all day.
As an avowed exercise hater, “standing more” seemed like something I could manage. In "Drop Dead Healthy," A. J. Jacobs goes from basically sedentary to active in two years, logging over a thousand miles on a treadmill while plugging away at his book. Maybe I could do something similar. I could work out (and by “work out” I mean stand up) while writing the great American novel! Or at least this article.
So I decided to devote the month of October to standing on my own two feet. I’d grade papers standing up, read books standing up, set up a standing desk and go on standing dates. I was kind of dreading it, actually. But if I live to a hundred, maybe it will all be worth it.
I am ready. I buy a pedometer to keep track of how many steps I take. It’s supposed to keep me motivated. “They” say a healthy person should get in 10,000 steps a day (about five miles). For the first week, my daily goal is to get in 10,000 steps and eight standing hours.
The next thing I do is set up a standing desk using a box on the kitchen countertop and an old keyboard that plugs into my laptop. On the first day of standing, I park myself in front of my new desk and try to get some work done. The psychological barrier is tough. It’s hard to concentrate. I seem to equate sitting down with buckling down. It’s the old writer’s motto: Get your butt in the chair!
We tell children they need to learn to sit still in order to focus on a task. I need to adjust my thinking. It feels unnatural at first; I have trouble paying attention to my work and my posture. Physically, it’s an adjustment, too. I stand for a few hours at a time, taking 15-minute sitting breaks.
The second day is a teaching day for me, and it’s harder to get my standing time in. I decide to cultivate a new teaching persona, one that involves a lot of thoughtful pacing around the room. Later, I read three chapters of "Little Town on the Prairie" aloud to my six-year-old, stomping around the living room and following her as she runs through the house. The next day I grade papers standing up at the bar-height counter in a coffee shop, which works well until I spill coffee all over my students’ essays.
I increase my standing from eight to 10 hours a day. At first my back, feet and legs felt tired after even an hour or two of standing, but now I’m used to it. Decades ago, standing all day long was the norm, when a bigger chunk of the population worked in fields or factories. Contemporary life seems to be designed for sitting -- in cars, in offices, in restaurants, in our own living rooms.
My pedometer motivates me to walk even more than before. I’m committed to my daily goal of 10,000 steps. On the days when I’m over -- say, up to 12,350 steps -- I’ll take a quick stroll or putter around the house just to round it out to 13,000. One night, determined to add 4,500 steps by bedtime, I jump up and down in the basement until I stub my toe (150). I walk to Whole Foods and back (3,500). I make potatoes au gratin and clean the kitchen at ten o’clock (200). Past midnight, I take a walk around the block in my pajamas (635). I run in place in the bathroom while I brush my teeth. 10,000!
I’m having a harder time getting my standing hours in. Some days I vow to stand for 12 or 14 hours but only manage eight. It’s not that I tire out physically. It’s actually more comfortable to stand than sit, once your body adjusts to the switch. Your circulation improves, your limbs don’t fall asleep on you. You burn more calories standing than sitting -- up to fifty calories an hour.
No, I fail not because I am worn out but because it’s just plain awkward to stand everywhere. I prefer to sit on the bus because I carry a lot of stuff, and I like to read during my commute. Or I sit because everyone else is seated. It’s one thing to stand while working from home, but another to hover over a table of sitters during a friendly gathering or restaurant outing.
When you’re seated, your body shifts down into a resting mode. It stops producing lipase, an enzyme that helps your body break down fat. This is the main reason health experts discourage sitting. Constant movement is good for the body, which is why I’ve taken up twitching, jumping and jogging in place (with accompanying hand movements). One observer notes that I look like a “hopped-up meth addict.” Once again I’m reminded that society rewards the quiet sitters of the world.
On my last week, I meet up with a friend for a “standing date.” We trudge through the rain to a Starbucks and sip tea while standing at the bar overlooking Burnside Avenue. Standing up during social visits like this isn’t too strange or remarkable, but it does require some planning. You have to find someone who is amenable to the Upright Lifestyle, and you have to find a location that’s conducive to standing. Think of all the places with plenty of spots to lounge around but nowhere to stand.
We need more standing furniture -- bar-height counters to rest drinks and plates. Perhaps more workspaces and gathering spots could have hybrid furniture, making it possible for sitters and standers alike to mingle.
On Monday, I visit my friend Emerson, who has used a standing desk for a year and a half. He’s somewhat of a fitness fanatic. He lies down when he reads at home (better for the back) and stands at the back of the room during meetings. Three out of 10 people in his small office stand instead of sit while working, and they’ve rigged up desks with boxes, shelves, and phone books. Other friends and friends-of-friends in all sorts of jobs have talked to me about their standing desks. Some do it for the long-term health benefits, others stand to help alleviate back or leg pain. Others -- like Emerson -- simply dislike sitting still.
October’s over, and at last I’m allowed to fall into a heap of exhaustion on the couch. But I don’t! I plan to keep on standing for eight to 12 hours a day; it isn’t as grueling as I imagined. It is almost invigorating.
Standing makes me feel more productive, less inclined to drift off into a wasteland of Internet “research” every night. I’m also still wearing my pedometer. I estimate it motivates me to walk eight extra miles a week. I took 353,360 steps in October -- an average of 11,400 a day. That’s 177 miles! This is a big accomplishment for an exercise avoider like me. If I’m ever able to move my “office” out of the dining room, perhaps I’ll attempt the next frontier: a treadmill desk.
As a society, we’re pretty entrenched in our sedentary lives. I can see myself sinking slowly back down into the chair, especially as the weather turns colder. The health benefits are compelling but don’t offer much in the way of instant gratification.
I’ll try to report back in 50 years. I hope I’m still standing.