Is our job killing us?

Are we ‘active couch potatoes’? Is it only me, or has there recently been much talk of the negative impact of too much sitting? Take a look at just a few of these recent articles:

Inactivity ‘killing as many as smoking’ – BBC News, 18th July 2012

Sitting is the New Smoking – Even for Runners – Runners World, July 20th 2013

‘Get Up!’ or lose hours of your life every day, scientist says – LA Times, 31st July 2014

I don’t automatically believe or react to every health scare I hear about, and I’m sure if we look hard enough there’s plenty of articles that will tell us sitting is fine. Also, initially I didn’t feel concerned by these headlines as I do an hour of sport every day, and a few years ago when I had a salaried, sedentary office job was the period of my life when I was the leanest and fittest. But as an employee I was actually regularly getting up from my desk to see colleagues or management, to deal with clients, or to go to see the factory production line. Even the toilet was several minutes walk away! Now I no longer interact with flesh-and-blood colleagues, I have no boss apart from myself, and I barely see one physical client a day. I regularly go to the gym at midday, which gives me a physical break halfway through the working day, but even then I can still find myself sitting at my desk from 2 to 7pm, and five or more hours of sedentary sitting, according to Dr. David Agus, a professor of medicine, is the health equivalent of smoking a pack and a quarter of cigarettes.* And a study of marathoners found that participants trained an average of 40 miles per week, but also sat idle for nearly 12 hours per day.*


So what can we do about it? Back in 2008 fellow translator Corinne McKay was already blogging about treadmill desks; I also have a friend who posts his Jawbone Up results on Twitter daily (Jawbone Up is an activity tracker that provides feedback on your sleep, exercise and steps). But treadmill desks need quite a lot space, and while apps like Jawbone can give you feedback and remind you to move, as far as I know they don’t provoke activity. Some people rave about stand-up desks, and while apparently they create more space to hang photos of good-looking members of the opposite sex, other desk workers remain to be convinced, saying standing is not necessarily better than sitting if you do it for a prolonged period of time. There are intermediate solutions, like the Kangaroo Pro or Varidesk adjustable standing desks, but in the end it all boils down to getting more activity and this doesn’t necessarily have to be intense, high-level activity either – some of the longest-living people on earth owe their longevity to having to walk up and down flights of stairs or getting up from a sitting position on the floor**. The debate rages as to how often we need to move, but for example this study suggests that interrupting sitting time with short bouts of walking every twenty minutes may be an important strategy for reducing cardiovascular risk.


So on my computer I recently dusted off my Time Out app, which I’ve set to grey out my screen every 20 minutes in order to remind me to get out of my seat and walk about unless I hit the ‘skip break’ or ‘postpone’ buttons. Time Out is a free app for Mac; solutions for PC-users apparently include Work Pace or BreakPal. What about you? Please let me know what solutions you’ve adopted (if any) in the comments below.

P.S. While we’re on the subject, I’ve also unchecked the “automatically adjust brightness” option of my monitor which I realised was making my eyes hurt, and I use a computer app called f.lux which makes the colour of my computer display automatically adapt to the time of day (‘warm’ at night and like sunlight during the day). You might also like to take a look at these computer monitor test pages that allow you to test and adjust your monitor settings to get the best possible picture quality and thus avoid eye strain.

Further reading:

* see A user’s guide to standing while you work

** see Why I Killed My Standing Desk, and What I Do Instead – Lifehacker

Why I’m a Convert to Standing at Work

Stand up at office to lose weight, says exercise scientistA sitting person’s guide to standing up and Treadmill desks: How practical are they? – BBC News

The Stand Up Desk – Lifehacker

I Tried Out A Standing Desk For All Of The Benefits — Here’s Why I Quit – Business Insider

Standing up at your desk may energize you, but it also may be tough on your legs – Washington Post

A Formula for Perfect Productivity: Work for 52 Minutes, Break for 17 – The Atlantic

3 Minute Mini Walk (video)


Acknowledgements to friend and freelance home-working editor Karen White of White Ink Limited for the cartoon above, and whose recent Facebook post inspired me to finally get round to writing this blog post that I’d been mulling over for a while.

12 responses

  1. I love titles like “Sitting reduces your risk of death up to 40%”. Just too silly!

    But yes, the issue is probably an important one. Luckily for us freelancers, we normally have control over our workspaces and can make changes and experiment.

    I have a stand-up desk and a stool. So I can change my behaviour according to the latest article I read. (I stood up as I was reading your post!)

  2. Thanks for your post Catharine. I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while. Initially I quite fancied a sit-stand treadmill desk, but it wasn’t really a feasible option for me, either space-wise or budget-wise. I’ve actually bought a mini cycle that goes under my desk, so I’m peddling away as I type. No idea how much good it actually does but it makes me feel better!

  3. Great post, Catharine! I hope you don’t mind me linking to it via a blog post I wrote on the same topic? We covered a lot of the same things, but you also mentioned one or two apps etc. that I hadn’t come across before. Have a great day!

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