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Why sitting will kill you (and what to do about it)

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If you work anywhere in or around technology, chances are you've either witnessed or are a member of the standing-desk craze, the natural offshoot of the increasing medical research suggesting sitting in your Herman Miller Aeron chair will actually kill you faster than smoking. But standing's the tip of the iceberg. Treadmill desks, work-walking, whatever you want to call it -- more and more people aren't just standing while they work; they're clocking in 10 slow miles a day on the job. With treadmill desks popping up everywhere from home offices to the cube farms of Google to the open newsrooms of The New York Times, the definition of what it means to be "at work" is changing more than ever before.

WHAT'S WRONG WITH A CHAIR?

The move to standing and treadmill desks has a lot less to do with what they are than what they aren't: They're not sitting down. The past few years have been rife with "Sitting Kills You" articles, with everyone from Time to the Harvard Business Review weighing in. There have been books highlighting the many evils of sitting, from NASA doctors and obesity specialists and regular old self-help gurus alike. Reasonable people can (and do) disagree about just how terrible it is to spend eight to 10 hours a day on your butt, but virtually nobody in the medical community thinks sitting all the time is a good idea.

Some of the science is obvious: When you sit, you burn far fewer calories than when you do just about anything else but sleep. Even if you stand stock-still, standing burns about 50 more calories per hour than sitting in front of your computer. If you're walking on a treadmill, you'll burn even more calories. Given the epidemic of obesity in the United States, the anything-but-sitting crowd has solid science to start with.

Electronic trade at the Istanbul Stock Exchange, ISE: broker sleeping at his desk.

But there's growing evidence that sitting has more nefarious health impacts as well. A 2012 study suggests that excessive inactivity is responsible for 6 percent of all cardiac disease, but also 7 percent of all type 2 diabetes, 10 percent of breast and colon cancers and 9 percent of all premature mortality. That's right: Sitting too much may actually make you more likely to die from virtually any disease, not just get fat. A very recent study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine goes so far as to suggest that avoiding sedentary work could actual lengthen your telomeres, preventing the symptoms of aging on a cellular level. In short, the more time you spend being active, the more likely you are to remain youthful-looking.

THE STANDING DESK

The earliest response from health-concerned desk workers was simply to stop sitting. Walk through any modern office, and you'll likely find at least one person who's perched their laptop on top of a FedEx box. Unfortunately, just standing can cause problems of its own if you aren't careful. The past 20 years has seen a huge focus on ergonomics in the workplace, in no small part because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made a big deal about it, and companies have recognized that their employees are more productive when they aren't in pain from doing their jobs.

leg - arm exercise durng office workNot what we'd call a "standing desk"

When you make the move to a standing desk, how you set up your space is even more important than it was when you were sitting. Fundamentally, all the same things that you agonized over in setting up your sitting desk need to be carried over –- screens at eye level, work surfaces not too low and not too high. To cater to getting things just right, there's now an entire industry ready to sell you adjustable desks, floor mats and accessories.

Standing works great for some people, but for many, it's actually just too exhausting (and for folks with heart conditions, it has actual medical risks). Recent studies suggest the best position to work from is whatever one you're not doing right now -– constantly changing your posture is as important as just "not sitting all day." As such, desks with easily adjustable heights are becoming the new normal.

The sit-stand desk is quickly becoming a standard in ergonomics-obsessed offices, and a Cornell study backs up the concept. The study says that giving people the option of changing their positions multiple times a day yields the most relief from any kind of workplace discomfort.

THE WALKING OPTION

If standing up is better than sitting, it seems logical that walking around would be even better, right? It's hardly a brand-new idea; we first reported on the concept in 2005. "Work-walking" or "tread-desking" is the latest experiment with changing how we think about desk jobs. At its simplest, a treadmill desk is just a standing desk with a treadmill underneath it. Practically speaking, however, it's a little more complicated and a lot harder to fudge. Most cheap treadmills (read: less than $1,000) are ill-suited for long periods of low-speed walking, and most treadmills designed for running have bars and control panels where you'd ideally want your computer.

The TrekDesk

The slickest solution is to buy a treadmill/desk combo designed for the workplace, which generally features slow, but heavy-duty motors and detached control panels you can stick off to the side. They provide highly adjustable work surfaces and well-padded arm rests. They also cost upwards of four grand.

For those of us operating in reality, however, finding just the right desk setup can be tricky. Getting the height of the work surface exactly right is critical, because you're not only typing and using a mouse, but you're also resting your forearms on the desk surface for stability. This leads to interesting ergonomic issues beyond the simple "what height?" question a standing worker faces.

MY EXPERIENCE WORK-WALKING

My own experience with treadmill desking is fairly recent, but has been positive. I opted, like I imagine most folks do, to modify an existing treadmill -– a Sole F80 you can find at pretty much any chain sporting goods store. It had the benefit of horizontal handrails that are easy to hack a desk surface onto, so I spent several days with different risers getting my typing height just so (in my case, the enormous box from Steve Jackson's Ogre reprint did the job nicely). My computer monitor is hanging on the wall in front of the treadmill. I like the flexibility of being able to jog for a while when I need to think something through, and I like being able to vary the incline I'm walking at –- two things you can't do with a dedicated desk-treadmill.

As an experience, tread-working is challenging at first, but I've found it a lot less boring than standing all day. Even at a very slow 1-1.5MPH pace, I'm logging about 10 miles of travel a day, and after a few days of adjustment, I actually find myself less fatigued than I do sitting or standing. I'm a pretty competitive person, and I like the fact that I've launched to the top of the daily community leaderboards with my fitness tracker of choice (a Jawbone Up24).

In terms of focus, I started off not even trying to type while walking, just using the treadmill for a few hours a day of research and media consumption. Lately, however, I'm doing essentially all of my work (including this article) while moving slowly forward, like a hamster on a wheel. I find that I am far less likely to be distracted by random cat pictures on the internet or feel the need to check Twitter once my feet are moving.

There are some tasks that take some adjustment or which just don't work well. I need to make sure I slow way down for phone calls or I find myself running out of breath. Fine mouse control (say, for picture editing) is pretty challenging, although browsing and typing are fine. And forget about competitive League of Legends -– unless you don't need much accuracy, mouse-and-keyboard gaming remains a chair-bound experience, although anything with a controller is fair game.

Over the course of an average day, I probably spend six to seven hours walking, one to two hours standing, and one to two hours sitting. It's a compromise that's worked well for me.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

SONY DSCEngadget Associate Editor Dan Cooper's makeshift standing desk

While a quick Google search will turn up dozens of places trying to sell you standing and treadmill desk equipment, there are a few standout resources for the alternative-workspace-curious. NotSitting.com is a one-man effort to review all the major options for both standers and walkers, and features great tips, whether you're going the DIY route or working with a budget. Ergotron, a company that definitely wants to sell you a desk, actually runs one of the best standing-desk websites on the side, JustStand.org. It's worth checking out; just understand its baked-in agenda.

There are also innumerable accounts from folks who've made the switch from sitting to standing or walking, and they can be extremely helpful in deciding if you're ready to get on your feet. Here are a few of the best:

No matter how you decide to tackle the problem, one thing is clear: We all need to get out of the chair more than we probably do. Just imagine how many calories you could've burned reading this on a treadmill!

[Image credit: AP Photo/Michael Conroy (treadmill desk), Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images (asleep at desk), Endopack/Getty (stretching at desk), TrekDesk (treadmill desk alone) Robb Godshaw (YouTube)]

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