The other night I had my first boxing class in almost three weeks. Throwing hard punches at a heavy bag might be, minute-for-minute, the most exhausting thing a human being can do. This morning I’m incredibly sore and I can feel it getting worse in real time. My forearms burn when I bend my wrists, and my lats feel like two great, triangular bruises.
Gym rats know this feeling as “DOMS” — delayed onset muscle soreness. Like many people I kind of enjoy the feeling of it, debilitating as it is, because it’s the feeling of getting back in shape. But the severity of it, after such a short layoff from the gym, is a stark reminder of how vigilant you have to be about putting your body to use when you work at a desk at home.
I’ve built a precarious set of habits to defend against the ever-present danger of sedentation. My five workouts a week (two boxing and three bodyweight training) form the bones of it. On top of that I’m always looking for any excuse to go for a walk. When these habits get interrupted though, as they often are during my annual Christmas illness, my activity level comes close to zero.
In Summer, as I mentioned last week, none of this is a problem. I’m outside several times a day, biking or running. Between November and April, though, both of these things become significantly more miserable and dangerous where I live.
Canadians are supposed to embrace the cold, but I don’t, and according to a recent CBC documentary, I am not unusual in that regard. We mostly resent and avoid frigid temperatures. Russians, reportedly, have a completely different cultural relationship to the cold, partly because it helped save them from both Napoleon and Hitler. They see the cold more as a national ally than a perennial enemy, as we tend to up here. So until I learn to like polar bear dives and winter hiking, I need to create habits that keep me from rusting in place in my desk chair.
Sitting is essentially what we do when we want the opposite of exercise, and the modern world has us doing it for long stretches. Much of our work and most of our entertainment is wholly mental now — we just need to park our bodies in front of the place where we need to use our eyes. Technology has minimized the role of the body in both work and entertainment to an absurd degree; using a mouse and keyboard requires only the wiggling of our fingers. Human beings have become an animal that is nearly always sitting.
Now that many of our lives require ludicrously low amounts of physicality from us, we’ve learned we have to compensate for that, by doing otherwise useless activities like running in circles around our neighborhoods and lifting heavy pieces of iron and putting them down again. But we’re also hearing increasingly scary things about the effects of sitting itself. While “sitting is the new smoking” is probably an overstatement, it’s no longer deniable that prolonged sitting isn’t good for us. For a long time I dismissed these dangers as correlations that didn’t apply to me — people who sit in front of a TV for six hours a day probably have poor diets and don’t go to the gym.
Unfortunately for me and my fellow desk jockeys, there are several negative consequences to prolonged sitting that seem to be inseparable from the sitting itself. Idle muscles respond poorly to insulin, and so the pancreas starts overproducing it to compensate. Circulation slows, putting us at risk of blood clots, varicose veins and other problems. Even the brain supposedly gets lazy when the body is idle too long.
Although my sitting posture doesn’t come close to resembling a figure in a “How to sit properly” infographic, I have never had back or neck problems. But my sitting is still a source of guilt — it just feels somehow unbecoming and kind of irresponsible, one of the few real concessions I knew I was making in my switch to a writing career. Before that, I had always been grateful that my job required me to put my body to use; as a surveyor I was always walking, lifting, digging, carrying and hammering, so wasting away at a desk always seemed like someone else’s problem.
Whenever I make noises about this conundrum, sympathetic readers (mostly full-time bloggers or other desk-types themselves) often suggest standing desks or treadmill desks, claiming these inventions have changed their lives. The idea has always seemed absurd to me, but its supporters have been adamant enough for long enough that I suspect there’s something to it.
A few months ago, I was contacted by a reader who works for a company that sells ergonomic furniture, including these standing desks. He asked if I’d ever considered doing a proper experiment with one of them. As we were both aware, such an experiment would be good publicity for them and the futuristic movement they serve, so they said they’d send me one if I ever wanted to try it.
Well, it’s on. A fancy-pants electronically adjustable desk is now set up in my kitchen, overlooking my picture window, and I’m going to see what the fuss is about. The idea of standing while you work seemed so bizarre to me initially that I thought it was a hoax perpetrated by The Onion — Corporate employees rebel against uncomfortable working conditions by boycotting chairs. But the fuss is persistent and positive, and — familiarity aside — there’s definitely something at least as perverse about a primate species who’s made it normal to sit in one place for most of the waking day.
Working standing up will be my nineteenth Raptitude experiment.
What I want to find out
The claims about circulation and overall health will be interesting to test, but my main interest has nothing to do with physiology. I’m most interested to see how it affects my working pace and my mentality. I get the sense that if I’m standing up I’m going to be naturally less inclined to distract myself with complacent computer activities like surfing social media. If standing makes being at my desk a significantly less effortless activity than it usually is, I imagine I’ll want to use that time to get my work done instead of clicking around or daydreaming.
Part of the reason standing desks seemed so unintuitive to me at first was because I associate standing with a kind of temporariness — you stand when you’re doing something like talking on a pay phone, or waiting for the ATM, not while you’re settling into a major task. But that sense of temporariness may be the genius of it, if it can help a person get down to work more assertively.
Put another way, sitting is a highly passive state, perfectly suited for self-entertainment or other effortless activities, and perhaps not so well suited for focused work. I suspect that standing makes a person less inclined to play and more inclined to work. I can easily spend four hours in a chair doing one hour of work and three hours of not-work. But there’s no way I’m going to spend four hours standing just to spend most of it dicking around.
The purpose of the experiment is to see what standing work is all about, and to figure out where it fits into my working life. Maybe I’ll end up preferring to write that way, or maybe I’ll want to sit to write but stand for lighter fare such as email-processing.
I’m going to start by spending half of each workday standing, which for me is three to three and a half hours. Every weekday but Wednesday I spend half the day writing, and that will be the half I spend standing. Wednesdays I spend all day writing, so the afternoon will be the standing part.
The experiment will be two workweeks long, and I’ll leave updates here. After that I’ll be away from home for a week, doing my work from coffee shops and libraries, where I’ll be forced to sit again, giving me a chance to reflect on whether the option to stand is something I miss or not.
I don’t really know what will happen, but preferences and insights will emerge, as they always do in my experiments. I’m confident that I won’t be doing a lot of YouTubing and Redditing from a standing position though. I’m also pretty confident that what I learn will reinforce a general trend in my life that’s recently become obvious: life gets better when I use my body more.
[Update] For those who have asked about the desk I used, this is it:
It’s called the Jarvis Desk, from Ergodepot (more info). A reader works for them and sent me one so I could do my experiment (thank you kind folks at ED). It’s pretty slick — you can adjust it using electronic motors, to different heights kind of like radio presets. Mine has a black frame.