Move throughout the day between sitting, standing, walking, bending, squatting, lying down. It’s not about finding a perfect position — it is about changing positions frequently.
During the time of industrial revolution, many people worked at factories, standing for hours on end. People who worked those jobs would tell you — it’s no picnic. Getting a position where you would sit instead was considered prestigious, as you got to “rise above” the physical labour. However, these days sitting is the new smoking — more and more research is coming out about negative effects of prolonged sitting. As an answer to that, a standing desk has been introduced and some office workers who can afford it (or whose company can) have been enthusiastically switching to standing desks in an attempt to rip the benefits of not sitting.
Standing, however, is not a panacea. The human body has not been designed to stay in one position — be it sitting, standing, or lying down, — and there are consequences to this rigid adherence to a single way of holding your body throughout the day. People who are forced to stay in bed for a prolonged period of time, due to sickness or mobility issues, suffer from loss of muscle strength and bone density, fatigue and shallower breathing, increased risk of blood clots and pneumonia due to heart and lung muscles not working well, bed sores, mental health issues, as well as digestive and hormonal imbalance. Staying in one position throughout the day means that the load falls on the same muscles, developing or injuring some muscles and weakening the others. Doing this day after day can lead to chronic conditions.
The key is in varied constant movement. The true usefulness of a standing desk is that you should be able to change its height to sit and stand interchangeably. There are also walking desks, with a treadmill next to the desk, but once again, you don’t want to be walking for 8 hours a day without stop — the key is to switch up what it is you do. During humanity’s hunter-gatherer years, humans sprinted over short distances, stalked, tracked and crouched in the bushes hunting prey, they squatted and bent gathering berries and roots, collecting firewood, making fire. They sat on logs, hip- and back-carried their babies around, sat cross-legged to sharpen weapons and tell stories. They were not sitting in one position all day long. What we need to do is find ways to get as much movement into our days that are often filled with computer work, office jobs, driving and watching TV while sitting on the couch.
Easier said than done, right? Well, even those of us who work primarily at a computer, can move a bit, even without a standing desk. Here are some ideas:
Get up regularly — at least once an hour for 10 minutes or so. Get a cup of tea, a glass of water, or a snack. Use the washroom. Pop outside for a couple of minutes to get some fresh air and vitamin D. Do a few stretches or dance to a song.
You don’t have to stop working in order to change positions: you can take your phone calls or video conference calls standing up, you can tilt your screen up and read while standing, you can take a laptop outside and sit on the grass, or cross-legged on the floor indoors if the weather is not computer-friendly. You can even walk away from the computer with a pen and paper to ponder a particular challenge without interruption. I find that making notes for writing, thinking up use cases, or putting down logical steps to an algorithm is often easier on paper, away from electronic distractions and the urge to dive into writing or coding without prior planning.
Go for a short walk — lunch hour is great for this. In warm weather, you can grab your lunch and go for a picnic at a nearby park, back yard, or on the lawn.
Do a short yoga routine, dance, jump rope, spin a hula hoop. Even a fifteen-minute break doing something physically active will engage those muscles that stay dormant while you work. I found that after a walk or a physically-engaging break, I came back to mentally-intensive work with a fresh outlook and a more resourceful state.
Stretch your calves. Prolonged sitting shortens our calves which in turn affect the alignment of our entire body, making it harder and harder to break out of the sitting mold as it becomes more difficult to do other things that require flexibility. I highly recommend calf stretches by Katy Bowman (and her entire site, for that matter). You can do them while standing at your desk and reading an article.
Do exercises that engage different muscles while sitting at your desk, waiting in line, driving, watching your kids, and doing other things you are doing anyway. Once again, Katy Bowman has some great suggestions.
Look into possibilities to rest at home without using the couch. We have made a bold move to get rid of our old couch that was full of flame retardant chemicals and nearly-shredded by our cat, with the baby starting to pick up the shreds off the floor. We now have a few cushions and ottomans scattered around the living room, and are changing our resting positions frequently as we play with the kids on the floor, read, breastfeed, and watch films. We are not missing the couch. In fact, I have noticed that whereas before I might plop down on the couch to catch my breath, I now get down on the floor with the kids to play or take a couple minutes sitting cross-legged on a cushion to take a few deep breaths and regroup. It is much easier to find motivation to get up off a cushion and engage in something meaningful than to extract myself from a couch.
Swap your chair for a yoga ball. I do all my puzzles sitting on a yoga ball and I love it.
There is a illustration with a variety of chair-free positions from around the world catalogued by an anthropologist Gordon Hewes to give you some ideas. Give them a try. I have a poster with these positions on the wall of the living room, to supply ideas for sitting positions when playing with kids on the floor.
Learn about body alignment — how we hold our body throughout the day has a profound impact on all the muscles, joints, bones, and everything else. In an improperly-aligned car, parts that bear more strain than they should wear down. The same thing happens with a human body. If, say, you exercise for an hour a day, how you stand, sit, and move throughout the other 23 hours has a much greater impact on your posture and health than what you while you exercise. We are constantly shaping our body through every movement we make, so it is good to develop some habits around the optimal ways to sit, stand, and walk. This lessens the time and effort needed to deal with chronic conditions that result from body parts that carry the strain they should not. Katy Bowman has some great books out there, including Move Your DNA and Alignment Matters which I highly recommend. You can also learn a lot about alignment on her blog, katysays.com.
Human beings are meant to move. If you don’t use all of your muscles, those you do not use will weaken and eventually atrophy. My baby can put her feet behind her head. She can also lie her belly on the floor while sitting down with legs apart. I know some adults that are able to do that, so it’s not the aging itself that prevents the rest of us from doing so — it’s the lack of movement. So let’s move!