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Taking a stand: Spending more time on your feet is good for your health

Saturday, February 8, 2014
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Kevin Coffey works at his stand-up desk at Palio+Ignite in Saratoga Springs. “It’s strange, but I feel like I have more energy,” Coffee says of standing while working.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Kevin Coffey works at his stand-up desk at Palio+Ignite in Saratoga Springs. “It’s strange, but I feel like I have more energy,” Coffee says of standing while working.

Kevin Coffey is easy to find at work.

People on the second floor at Palio+Ignite, an advertising agency in Saratoga Springs, can usually see Coffey’s head in motion above a cluster of cubicles. He stands for most of his shift, typing on a keyboard that rests on a small tablelike platform in the far corner of his work space.

Medical professionals say Coffey’s stand-up routine will benefit his health. They say sitting down for long periods can lead to lying down for long periods — in caskets.

Researchers have linked sitting — at desks and easy chairs — with medical conditions nobody wants. Obesity, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels are on the list, according to the Mayo Clinic, the medical practice and medical research group based in Rochester, Minn. Too much seat time, researchers say, also seems to increase risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

21 sedentary hours

At the 2013 annual gathering for the American Medical Association, board members adopted policy that recognized potential risks that come with prolonged sitting and encouraged employers, employees and others to make available alternatives to sitting, such as standing work stations and isometric balls.

“Prolonged sitting, particularly in work settings, can cause health problems, and encouraging workplaces to offer employees alternatives to sitting all day will help to create a healthier workforce,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, a board member, in a press statement.

And a 2012 study on the impact of sitting and television viewing on life expectancy in the U.S. — published in the online journal BMJ Open — found that reducing excessive sitting to less than three hours a day and reducing television viewing to less than two hours a day would add another two years to life expectancy.

According to the JustStand.org website, which provides information about pros and cons with standing and sitting, the typical American is sedentary for 21 hours each day. Eight hours are spent sleeping, 71⁄2 hours are spent sitting at work. Television, home computer time and eating put people in chairs for another three hours. Folks are in active or standing modes for only three hours each day.

“We see all kinds of problems with people with desk jobs or driving jobs that get considerable amount of pain just from sitting alone,” said Joe Battiste, a senior physical therapist with the Regional Therapy Center of Saratoga Hospital, in the Malta Commons office. “It certainly does a number on your lower back, it can lead to muscle imbalances through your hips, range-of-motion issues through your hips and all the way up from your lumbar spine up to your neck. It can cause a whole slew of problems.”

Breaking the day up

In recent years, people have been taking steps to take steps away from their chairs.

“I’d say within the past 10 or 15 years, there’s been more of an emphasis on staying active and being aware of our posture when we’re doing things for prolonged periods of time,” Battiste said. “There’s been a bit more research done on what prolonged sitting can kind of do to your body. We’ve started to shed a little bit more light on it anyway.”

People in desk jobs have choices.

“Some things I suggest are, there are these new standing desks that people have brought into their workplaces and seem to give people at least some options,” Battiste said. “There are desks that are adjustable where you can have them in a seated position for a period of time during the day and then bring them up into a standing position so people can stand at their computers and do some work. It splits up the day nicely for people, gives them an opportunity to change positions and puts stresses on different parts of their body, which is better than loading up specifically your lower back or your hips for prolonged periods. It’s good to break it up a bit.”

When high-tech desks are not available, Battiste said people should try to exercise during their shifts.

“At least every hour, I encourage people to get up and take a walk around the office or go to the water cooler and get a drink,” he said. “The more often you can do it, the better.”

Such a regimen is actually good for the company.

“If you look at the time lost due to lower back injuries and things like that, it’s certainly more of a significant amount of productivity lost on that end than there would be from getting up and moving around a couple times per hour,” Battiste said.

Coffey, an account director who has worked at Palio+Ignite since 2011, has been working on his feet for the past four months. He had worked with a client with a stand-up work station, and had read about the vertical option. “It’s strange, but I feel like I have more energy,” said Coffey, 34, who lives in Saratoga Springs. “My back feels better, I feel that I have better posture and I stand up straight. And weirdly, I feel a little bit more productive.”

Stimulating the mind

Coffey said he spends about six hours standing, and has a cushioned floor mat and comfortable shoes to help his cause. He adopts more traditional business positions when meeting with clients and during staff meetings in conference rooms. “I’m not going to be the one person standing,” he said.

Philip Reynolds, Palio+Ignite’s associate creative director, also can hit the heights in his office. “It kind of works different parts of my body so I don’t get physically stagnant,” he said. “I like to think that it might help me stay less mentally stagnant, too.”

Dominick Marchesiello, a physical therapist with the Regional Therapy Center at Wilton Medical Arts, said stretching exercises also help if people must sit.

“Sometimes, it’s as simple as every 20 to 30 minutes, standing up and doing 10 renditions of bending backwards, standing and bending backwards and just changing the position of the spine, changing the stress,” Marchesiello said. “Ultimately, that can prolong the efficiency of how your back works and decrease the risk of injury.”

The Mayo Clinic website offers other suggestions to take a load on your feet. Standing while talking on the phone or eating lunch is one. Another is walking laps with colleagues rather than gathering in conference rooms for meetings.

Other health groups say people can walk up and down stairs at work instead of riding elevators.

Battiste knows that some people slump in their chairs on work days.

“The computer just kind of pulls you in,” he said. “What slumping does is puts a lot of stress, specifically on your lower back. The discs in your lower back have a tendency to get pushed backward. What happens when that occurs is the disc can eventually poke out and start to pinch on the nerves as they come out of your spinal cord. When that happens that’s when you start to get the sciatica pain, or pain radiating down into the legs.”

Marchesiello said people can also help themselves with posture. They just have to sit the right way.

“Most people make the error, they sit forward on the chair, they lean back and there’s this huge gap between your buttocks and the back of the chair,” he said. “We try to encourage people to get their butt all the way back in the seat, back flat against the chair, hips at 90 degrees, knees at 90 degrees, ankles at 90 degrees. That’s the best position for you to be in.”

Good for all ages

Too much sitting can also cause health problems for children. Battiste said he has seen 11- and 12-year-olds complaining about back pain. “You look at part of the curriculum, they’re kind of decreasing the amount of gym time and things like that, so I certainly think it’s a problem,” he said.

Retired people sitting in front of television sets for hours at a time may have more comfortable chairs. But Battiste said they also have to move.

“What we see with the older population is a lot of muscle wasting and general deconditioning,” he said. “So we’re certainly encouraging them to be involved in a walking program.”

Battiste added that people have to be careful not to stand too much, either.

“Being on your feet all the time isn’t good,” he said. “Concrete floors have given people trouble. People who are on their feet a lot, we talk about good footwear and certainly using good body mechanics so as not to stress the spine. And to maintain a good standing posture so they’re not overstressing one part.”

Coffey said people who want to stand at work should get used to the feeling first.

“I wouldn’t advise just getting a standing desk and trying to start your entire day on it,” he said. “Maybe a couple hours here and there and then sit.”

 
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