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Shannon M. Nelson Headshot

Your Office Chair Might Be Killing You

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Three years ago 48-year-old stock broker John Nelson had had enough. It was 2:30 p.m. on a Friday, and his back, long a source of pain during his workdays and weekly rounds of golf was killing him.

Nelson, a 24-year Vancouver Investment Advisor with Scotia McLeod and the father of a young family of three active kids was just desperate enough for some relief that he took the then radical step of ordering a standing desk for his South Granville office. After waiting a week for delivery and setting the thing up himself, he embarked on what he now calls a 'life changing' path to being able to work in relative comfort.

In fact, the idea of standing desks, often referred to as 'geek desks' because for a while they seemed the exclusive domain of the young and brainy upstarts in the world of technology (there is a company that manufactures standing desks now called 'geek desk') has been around for hundreds of years. Thomas Jefferson was rumored to use a standing desk, as was Charles Dickens. And while it's unlikely that either of these esteemed contributors to history had heard the term 'sitting disease', they probably both felt the benefits of standing while they worked, if even for a short period of time.

Sitting is the new smoking, or at least that's what the manufacturers of standing desks (and there are several of them these days) will tell you. The medical profession agrees, and experts have identified some 34 diseases and conditions that are associated with excess sitting. They include diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity, depression, and back and joint pain. When you consider that the average North American sits some five hours and 41 minutes a day, with less than perfect posture, you get a picture of just how damaging all this sitting can be.

James Levine, a highly respected endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic is an outspoken proponent of increasing our standing time. He's written a book titled "Get Up," in which he describes how he came to the scientific conclusion that our chairs are trying to kill us (his line, not mine). He says that for every hour we spend sitting we shorten out lives by two hours. To combat this, he invented the 'treadmill desk', which takes the idea of standing while you work to a whole new, active level.

So what does standing at your desk do for you? A recent one year study shows that people who stand for at least part of their workday are 10 to 12 per cent more productive than people who sit all day long. Standing more, and moving around while you stand prompts increased blood flow to the brain, helping it to operate at a higher level. Spending even just part of the day at your work desk standing helps you to be more focused and alert. Not only that, standing at your desk burns more calories than sitting, up to 350 a day!

I've interviewed several people who have converted to standing desks in the last little while, and most of them talk about having more energy, improved posture, better core strength, and less back pain. They rave about feeling 'at the ready' for any office eventuality, and a couple even shyly confessed to liking how they looked (i.e. cool) standing at their desks to work.

Naturally there are people who don't like standing at a desk while they work too. Common complaints include leg and foot soreness (especially to begin with), joint pain, increased fatigue from standing all day, and for some, varicose veins. Some folks don't like how they stick out in an office when they're standing at their desk. And of course, there's always going to be some squawking about the expense of a stand up desk.

There's no question you can drop a load of dough on a standup desk if you're so inclined. Stir Kinetic makes a top of the line standing height desk that retails at $4k. The Nordic Track Treadmill desk runs about $2k, enabling you to walk on a treadmill while at your desk. GeekDesk has a model which adjusts between regular desk height and standing height that will cost you about $1k. And Varidesk makes a variety of height adjustable standing desks in the $300 range.

If that's still too much of an investment for you you can go online and find home made alternatives to raise your work surface, and spend as little as $20 for the effort. I tried the standing desk option by putting my computer on my bar at home and that worked fine for me.

Here are a few recommendations for managing the transition from sitting to standing:

1. Ease into it -- standing for a short time every hour is advisable until you get used to it. (Even when you are used to standing, experts recommend splitting your time between standing and sitting.)

2. Wear comfortable shoes, and if you're female and used to wearing high heels, be prepared to look ridiculous for the standing part of your day.

3. Invest in an anti-fatigue mat to stand on (kitchen supply stores stock these for chefs).

4. Keep an appropriate height chair around for the times you want to sit at your standing desk.

Back to our stock broker John Nelson, who has found his happy place with an adjustable standing height desk. He finds that standing for about an hour a day is enough to prevent back pain and he claims it keeps him sharp too. With a blue tooth on his phone and a stand up desk, he's also able to work on his putting stroke while talking to clients. That, he confesses, might be the best part of all.