Stand to Attention

Last month I wrote about the dangers of prolonged sitting.  Many readers have questioned how to most effectively counter this trend, given the demanding desk work that many people engage in, and the pressure to be visibly productive every minute of the working day.

You could begin by emailing this Blog (and last month’s) to everyone in your workplace so that people realise you are increasing your productivity and not slacking off whenever you stand! 🙂 Better still, print several copies of this Blog, get to work before anyone else arrives, and pin it up where everyone will see it.  This will give you the added benefit of walking around the office before you even start work.

Standing at work is not a new idea.  The stand-up desk has been the success secret of great men for centuries.  Lewis Carroll, Donald Rumsfeld, Charles Dickens, Otto von Bismarck, Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson and John Dos Passos were all standing desk enthusiasts.  Women were already standing or moving for most of the day with all the housework they were doing, hence they don’t get a mention.  There is some debate about whether Virginia Woolf used a standing desk – it appears she alternated between standing and sitting – the ideal situation.  One of the most keen standing desk users was Ernest Hemingway, who declared that it improved his breathing, posture, focus and energy.  And Victor Hugo admitted it was so that his stomach didn’t sag – he felt he looked more attractive when he was standing rather than sitting!

So you’ll be in excellent company when you take up standing as a regular habit.

The good news is that challenges such as how to spend more time standing, open the door to creative thinking and collaboration.  Stand up desks are becoming increasingly mainstream in companies such as Apple, Google, Chevron, Intel and Boeing.  The Commonwealth Bank in Sydney is trialling a mobile way of working.  Employees don’t have desks or landlines.  Instead, they spend their day roaming between chairs, standing desks and conference tables, depending on the task at hand.  It has encouraged a culture of greater interaction and innovation, not to mention better health.  Meanwhile, some of my colleagues have incorporated a treadmill desk in their office.

The more there is consumer demand for standing solutions, the more companies and entrepreneurs will create better solutions.  And you can also create your own varied routine.  I am not advocating prolonged standing either, as this brings its own health hazards.  Excessive standing can increase load on the circulatory system and raise the risk of varicose veins.  Meanwhile, desks and screens that are not designed for standing, will lead to leaning, stiff necks and compromised wrist posture, predisposing to carpel tunnel syndrome.

The solution – as with most things – is a balanced approach.  Ideally, alternate sitting with standing, pacing, stair-walking and raising yourself on your toes every so often.  Consider getting a lectern next to your desk so you can comfortably read and work at the correct height while standing.  This moving routine may seem tedious at first and take a bit of getting used to.  But it’s a habit that will boost your brain and significantly reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Showing 2 comments
  • Diana Thurbon

    It isn’t just you Helena, but all health advice these days seems to ignore people who are not ambulatory. Obviously there are people in wheelchairs and other disabled people – chronic pain prevents many people from more than hobbling. For myself I had shingles about 6 years ago in my left thigh which morphed seamlessly into postherpetic neuralgia. Years passed and I was able to control the pain with medication and begin exercise again. Exercise became more difficult as a lung disorder limited my breathing, but I persisted. Now I have osteoporosis, am starting to forget things and am 14 lb overweight. I also have sciatica, 8-9 weeks – right through my PHN damaged nerves. It’s agony. I am only out of pain laying down. What do people like me do? Should I take stong opioids to exercise? Thank you, Diana

    • Helena Popovic

      Dear Diana,

      Profuse apologies that it has taken me so long to reply to your message. I feel for your distressing and complex situation. A lot might have changed since you wrote to me but here is my response to what you said at the time.

      People who are not mobile require specific measures to try and exercise their muscles and joints. A physiotherapist, exercise physiologist, partner, friend, family member or carer could passively move someone’s limbs on a regular basis if the person is unable to do so themselves. Pain may limit even passive movement but at least it would provide an opportunity to see what movement was possible. Massage is another good option but I recognise that these things can be costly. Hence my suggestion that a partner or family member might want to help.

      I do not recommend taking strong opioids or other pain killers in order to exercise. With respect to chronic pain management, I highly recommend you read the first chapter of Norman Doidge’s book ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing’. He demonstrates how we can rewire our brains to change our perception of pain and even eliminate chronic pain entirely. Another wonderful book is ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. All of Tolle’s books offer a path to healing.

      Bizarre as it sounds, imagining yourself exercising can also improve your strength and fitness. A study published in the ‘Journal of Neurophysiology’ showed that when we imagine using our muscles we actually strengthen them. The study compared a group of people who physically exercised their finger muscles five days a week for four weeks with a group of people who only visualised themselves doing the exercises. The visualisers saw themselves performing the exact same drills that the physical group were doing: 15 maximal contractions with a 20 second rest between each. After a month, everyone’s strength was retested. The physical practice group were 30% stronger than they’d been at the start of the study. The visualisers were 22% stronger than they had been at the start! The same neurons fire and the same parts of the brain light up whether we are performing an action or have our eyes closed and are imagining that same action. This means your muscles are receiving electrical stimulation from your nerves every time you visualise yourself using those muscles.

      At the risk of stating the obvious, everything we do to improve our overall health serves to reduce our experience of pain. This includes getting a regular good night’s sleep (which I acknowledge may be difficult if you are constant pain), eliminating processed foods and in particular sugar and seed oils, practising gratitude, learning to meditate, laughing (watch some comedy every day) and nurturing meaningful relationships. Doing volunteer work or helping others in any capacity you can has also been found to reduce pain. We are complex creatures. Some of the things I’ve mentioned appear to have nothing at all to do with physical pain. However, everything in our lives is interconnected and our emotional wellbeing profoundly impacts our physical symptoms.

      If you wish to share more of your healing journey, I promise it will not be another 2 1/2 years before I respond.

      Warmest regards,

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