Are you sitting down?
Nice knowin’ ya! If you sit down more than 11 hours a day, one study suggests, you’re 40 percent more likely to die in the next three years than I am. I’m standing up. I’ve been standing up all day. I’ll be standing up all month, in fact, without a break. I expect at the end of that month I’ll be sore but triumphant, glowing with smug enlightenment.
Reading the research, I’ve become convinced that sitting around all day is the worst thing I do to my body—that, like smoking, plopping down on our collective ass makes us profoundly likelier to die earlier. The effects have nothing to do with regular exercise; indeed, it seems that being sedentary when you’re not exercising eliminates many of its benefits. Sitting all day lowers your good cholesterol and raises your risk of diabetes. Sitting down, you burn a single measly calorie each minute.
And so a growing cadre of lean, mean, self-satisfied office workers are exploring standing or even walking on a treadmill at work. They’re trying to maximize their vigor, and also the tiny muscle movements that standing fosters—weight-shifting, stretching, walking around. Sitters, meanwhile, are basically already corpses: Their “muscles go as silent as those of a dead horse,” a researcher memorably told The New York Times Magazine.
If sitting at work is terrible for me, shouldn’t I stop? And if I do, shouldn’t I stop sitting everywhere? I decided to spend a month on my feet: 30 days never being a couch potato, an office slug, a sitting duck. The exceptions, agreed upon with my editor: I would sit to drive (but would strive to take the train); I would sit when nature called. I would also sit to put my shoes on, I decided this morning after falling over trying to put on my shoes. I would lie down to sleep, although I surely wouldn’t need sleep, given that I’d be so healthy.
I ordered insoles and an anti-fatigue mat and doohickeys to transform my office and home desks into standing workstations. I strapped on a fitness tracker to measure my activity. And I woke up this first morning ready to stand in the place where I live, and stand in the place where I work. My feet are going to be on the ground—ah, shit, do my feet ever hurt.
My Standing Diary
9:00 My standing desk hasn’t arrived, so I’ve set my laptop on the kitchen counter atop Gary Larson’s four-inch-thick collection, The Complete Far Side 1980–1994.
9:13 Confident! My wife walks past and says, “You seem impressive.” I feel impressive! These new cross-trainers I’m wearing definitely give me better arch support than most of my shoes.
10:02 I’m already shifting from foot to foot to ease pressure on my back. I bend way over and my vertebrae crackle ominously. Perhaps a stool, upon which the heroic stander may rest one foot while the other bears the load, is in order?
11:24 Time for a short walk. My calves ache, as if standing for three hours is more exercise than I get in one typically slovenly, indolent day. After my walk, I check my fitness stats—I’ve already taken almost as many steps as I did on a typical day last week, and I’ve been up for only three and a half hours.
12:45 Lunch at the counter. Spill mayonnaise on my shirt.
2:41 Definitely having trouble getting work done. The idea of opening up a new document to edit feels crushing, as though each task I take on carries with it the additional burden of standing the whole time. But hey, it’s the first day! I’ll get used to this.
4:02 Made it! Walking to bus stop. Walking feels way better than just standing.
6:00 Lie down in bed for just a second to rest my eyes and fall instantly asleep even though both my kids are shouting at the tops of their lungs in the next room.
7:30 Dinner. The family eats at the table; I eat at the counter. My younger daughter, H., cannot believe what I am doing. She takes my hand and leads me to a chair, as if perhaps I have forgotten we own it. “But why are you not allowed to sit down?” she asks. “Because it’s healthier,” I say. “And a man at a magazine is paying me money.”
8:50 Tennis with a friend. Usually we are very competitive; today I barely avoid getting bageled. Driving to and from the court is a real treat, though.
10:00 Watch Game of Thrones. My wife is cuddled under a blanket on the couch. I am upright in the middle of the room, shifting from foot to foot like I have to pee.
11:35 Lie down in bed. Feels great. Gonna do some reading.
TOTAL SIT: 25 minutes (15 car, 10 toilet)
“Sitting was killing me,” says Michael Perko. I’m in my office at work, keyboard up on an aluminum tray, talking to him on speakerphone as I type. “When we sit for long periods of time, the enzymes responsible for burning fat shut down. Sitting too much can lower good cholesterol, HDL, and lead to a slower metabolism. In essence, sitting can cause the disease process.”
Perko, a professor at UNC-Greensboro, is a cheerful anti-sitting agitator: “Even if you’re active,” he says, “even if you get up at five and do your P90X—if you sit six hours a day, those benefits are negated.”
I explain my upstanding monthlong project, and his upbeat demeanor falters a bit. “Yeah, you know, this happens a lot. You get religion, and you go to the other extreme. I did it. I had no idea that I was wearing the wrong shoes and I didn’t have a good fatigue mat.”
“I’m good on those!” I say confidently.
“Yyyyyeah,” he replies. “If you have any musculoskeletal problems, doing it all at once is not the right thing to do.”
“My back feels okay,” I lie.
“Well, good luck!” he signs off. “I hope you suffer no lasting effects!”
4:00 You know what’s an awkward place to stand? A movie theater. I’m watching a movie that I totally love, but I’m standing by the exit door, the only place I am not in other people’s way, except when they go to the bathroom and eye me like I’m an alien serial killer. I’m not the alien serial killer here! Scarlett Johansson is! I just like to watch films while hopping up and down and pacing, okay, pal?
TOTAL SIT: 45 minutes (40 car, 5 toilet)
I am already benefiting from my constant standing. So long, two o’clock snoozies. I’ve lost a couple of pounds. The shoulder tension and pain from hunching over a keyboard is gone, and my upper body feels ten years younger. For much of the day I am legitimately more productive. A basic work scenario: I’m stuck on a sentence and can’t figure out how to fix it. Sitting Dan opens a new tab in his browser and 15 minutes disappear. Standing Dan, meanwhile, takes a short walk around the office, maybe gets a snack, but who cares because Standing Dan is burning thousands of calories walking three miles a day.
But I can’t work into the night. By the early evening I’m wiped out, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better as the days go by. Instead, I’m just more tired and more sore. My calves and ankles and hips are possessed by separate dull, throbbing aches that never dissipate. I’m popping Tylenol, stretching, and toe-touching all day.
And my heels! How often do most guys notice or think about their actual heels? Never. But by 5 p.m. each day, all the attention that I once might have paid to office politics or world news is focused there. My family? My libido? Nope, heels. Somehow they are both throbbing and somewhat numb. If I take a shoe off and grab one, I can’t feel my own fingers on my skin, but my heel doesn’t stop hurting. So that’s a problem.
11:45 Extremely nice walk with older daughter, L., to shopping center for lunch (at tall table) and home. Walking a long way used to feel like work; now it’s a blissful respite from standing in one place.
4:15 Wife, on the phone to her mom: “Yeah, he’s standing up right now.” (Pause.) “Um, slightly more grumpy than usual.”
7:30 We’ve got tickets to a play tonight. I sit in my seat, on the grounds that I don’t want to be escorted out. Probably a cop-out. It feels so, so, so, so good.
TOTAL SIT: 125 minutes (90 play, 30 car, 5 toilet)
At the office I am quick to tell co-workers that this is a stunt, that they shouldn’t expect me to seem healthy and awesome forever. The $149 WorkEZ desk trays I ordered are shaky and annoying. At home, I use a much more enjoyable (and thrice as expensive) Kangaroo Pro, lent to me by the nice people at Ergo Desktop, which slides up and down like a dream but takes over my entire desk.
During meetings, I move around the conference room, adopting the positions that band members strike in terrible publicity photos. (One knee flexed, foot pressed against wall; crouching; resting on heels, arms folded.) The power poses are hard to maintain, and anyway I’m always on the outskirts of the meeting so my contributions seem speakerphoned even to those in the room. Then I take the train home and, no matter how many seats are open, I’m upright in the middle of the car.
8:30 Wife is super-impressed with me as I use scissors to trim Dr. Scholl’s insoles at the kitchen counter while our kids eat breakfast. The guy at the deli counter recommended them to me! I roll back and forth. They feel pretty good!
7:00 One day on these insoles and they’ve gone completely Flat Stanley.
TOTAL SIT: 20 minutes (15 car, 5 toilet)
When I finally do lie down in bed each night, my calves spasm for like half an hour. I am hitting snooze on my alarm more mornings than I have since the era of late-night feedings. That daily trick we all play every morning—where we fool ourselves that the bright and awful day has more to offer us than our warm bed, just for a moment, just long enough to get up—is much tougher to pull off when I know I have 17 consecutive hours of standing ahead of me. Let me lie down a little longer, I think. Let this not count.
7:00 Feel unusually happy and close to my family this evening. Realize why when H. yells, “You’re sitting!”: I absentmindedly plunked down at the table through dinner.
8:30 At bedtime, I read stories to the kids, not snuggled up cozily next to them but looming over their beds like an Edwardian headmaster. “You shoulda never said yes to writing that story, Dad,” says L. dolefully, shaking her head at the foolishness of it all. She’s right.
TOTAL SIT: 40 minutes (25 car, 10 accidental dinner, 5 toilet)
“Science has known for a long time that standing all the time is bad for you,” Dr. April Chambers tells me. “Longer than we’ve known about sitting.” Chambers, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, studies people who are on their feet all day at work. She reminds me that most standers aren’t jerks like me, doing it for a stunt—they’re workers with no choice. “Seven of the ten top occupations require standing for a prolonged period,” she says. “Retail, manufacturing, health care: There are big workforces where people stand a lot.”
Because of the density of research that ceaseless standing causes health problems —varicose veins, lower-back pain, increased risk of stroke—many workplaces now supply sit-stand stools or at least foster movement by employees. (Capitalism being capitalism, it didn’t hurt that research also showed that uninterrupted standing hurt worker productivity.) In jobs where standing all day is the norm, a kind of lore is passed down from worker to worker—it’s why so many female nurses, for example, swear by Dansko clogs, and many factory workers use Superfeet insoles. One nurse told me he’s worn the same model of Asics running shoes for over ten years, stocking up whenever they go on sale.
The lesson from Dr. Chambers is the same lesson I’ve heard from every scientist, from my doctor and my wife and an appalled massage therapist: Standing all the time is no better than sitting all the time. The key is—surprise!—to do some of each. How much? Opinions differ. “Yes, a sedentary life is bad,” says Chambers, “but no one seems to have identified yet where that healthy balance is between sedentary and standing.” Nearly all the scientists I talk to have sit-stand desks; they set alarms or use apps and utilities like BreakTime to remind them to stand up for about ten minutes every hour. They stand for meetings and phone calls—“I’m standing right now!” I keep hearing from scientists—and then they plop down to write or read.
Even when you’re standing still and working, you can do things to ease the pressure on your legs. Dr. Jack Callaghan of the University of Waterloo tells me that in his research on standing and back pain, the primary difference he sees between “pain developers” and “non–pain developers” is posture. “Raising a foot—I have a blue recycle bin and I’ve turned it over, and I alternate legs, putting one foot on that and then the other.” It also helps to stand on a very slight slope, “one that can raise your toes just a little bit.” When I explain the situation to a massage therapist, she intones, “Oh, shit,” then teaches me a great Achilles stretch. These techniques, plus my own steady stream of invective, help make my later weeks on my feet more tolerable than the earlier ones.
Until April 28.
Hit wall. Completely fucking dead. Wife rubbed my feet tonight. If Sitting Dan got a foot massage from his wife, he’d thank her. Standing Dan is a whiny asshole. Email to friend: “If a nun gave me a $100 bill I would be like, screw you, my legs hurt.”
My dotage seems unpromising if I respond to relatively minor pain this badly. I have been really lucky in my life, healthwise; if/when I get some chronic condition I better medicate heavily so that I don’t get divorced/disowned by children.
TOTAL SIT: 60 minutes (40 car; 20 toilet, comprising four bathroom breaks, each representing one game of Candy Crush)
“Sitting, the great leveler,” Mr. Burns memorably told Homer Simpson. “From the lowliest peasant to the mightiest pharaoh, who doesn’t enjoy a good sit?” Another great leveler is awkwardness around the guy who’s standing up when everyone is sitting. I had never really thought about the social implications of standing versus sitting until this month brought them to the fore. At restaurants, I feel as though I’m delivering an hourlong toast; at the playground, my mien is transformed from relaxed-dad-on-a-bench to that of a pacing nervous parent, ready to intervene at the slightest sign of trouble.
More than that, this enforced standing has made me realize how much of my time bonding with my family is spent seated. Now we play Crazy Eights with me hulking over the table like a grudgingly accepted giant. I’ve begged off story time because my kids don’t like craning their necks to see the pages, and I find it maddening not to be able to snuggle with them in bed. At the beach house we shared with my in-laws for Easter weekend, I was completely unable to relax or join anyone else in relaxing. I hovered around the edges of the living room as everyone else chatted and read, constantly checking my email because it was a thing I could do standing up. (The drive to the beach house was another story; never have I so enjoyed a seven-hour crawl down I-95.) What was meant to be a restful long weekend turned into a stressed-out ordeal, with me cast as the outsider unable to connect. It all came to a head at Easter dinner, during which I stood straight up as if in a Last Supper parody, loved ones assembled to each side, my roast lamb perched on that stupid aluminum work tray. All I wanted to do was just be for a little while! Instead, I could never stop thinking about my dumb, clumsy, painful body, not for a second.
On the last day of April, I take the Amtrak from Washington to New York, wedged between two stools at the counter in the café car of a crowded Acela. (The Acela: one hour less of standing on a train, well worth another hundred dollars.) An elderly couple kicks me out of my spot when they need a place to eat sandwiches, unmoved by my claims that I “can’t sit down anywhere.” “Well,” the husband says, “I can’t stand up for very long. So we have the opposite problem.”
My month has been an ordeal, but it’s clearly succeeded. I’ve lost almost five pounds and gained muscle in my legs, especially my calves. I’ve cut my time-wasting drastically, editing and writing more than in any month I can remember. I’ve walked 92.5 miles, basically without trying.
Tomorrow, on May 1, I have big plans to sit down all day. I’ll order lunch in and imperiously demand that all meetings take place in my office, like a sultan. But after that, I plan to work on my feet a lot, the memory of my all-day agonies reminding me that finding ten minutes an hour to be vertical is not that arduous. I stood up at family dinner for a month. Here’s hoping what I learned will keep me sitting down to family dinners, story times, and, yes, conference calls, for many years to come.
The Tally of Woe:
Total miles walked.
Average number of steps per day. (Before the month of standing: 3,284.)
Total steps taken in April.