The 21 Day Program to Prevent Your Desk Job From Killing You

The Issue is Behind You

Your ass. It’s where you spend most of your life if you have a job in an office. Breakfast is probably consumed while sitting or maybe it's just a quick bite while seated in the car on the commute in. Then it’s time for the 8-10 hour slog of sitting in front of a screen before the next carseat perch on the commute home. To end the day, most people then sit down for dinner and continue to buttplant on the couch while watching TV. Finally, after that long, physically grueling day, they finally can get off their rears and into bed. 

Cubicle farms are the absolute farthest possible existence from our hunter-gatherer roots. Our physiology was shaped over hundreds of thousands of years so that we could move with speed, power and agility. On the scale of human history, the means to survive without constant movement is only an incredibly recent possibility. Although the industrial and digital revolution has created thousands of new ways to make a living and survive, neglecting the body’s evolutionary requirements for movement is literal suicide. 

Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-ASU Obesity Solutions Initiative, and inventor of the treadmill desk, is calling sitting the new smoking. Along with a growing number researchers, he explains that like smoking, the damage inflicted by sitting all day cannot be reversed through exercise or a healthy diet. With the added detriment of stress, here are a few ways that the office could be leading us to our demise: 

  • Cancer. It has been shown that long stretches on your butt can put cancer in it. Aside from colon cancer, the rates of endometrial and lung cancer were also higher in those that spent most of their time sitting. 
  • Heart Disease. The risk of heart failure is more than double for those who sit at least five hours a day and don’t exercise much. The really scary part is that even with the addition of exercise, sitting for more than five hours a day will still increases one’s odds of heart failure by 34%. 
  • Obesity. In very controlled studies that omitted exercise completely, those who sat all day gained weight faster than their moving counterparts. I’d file this finding under “duh”, but the difference between the subtle movement while simply standing made a material improvement compared to that of sitting. 
  • Type 2 Diabetes: Staying planted on your ass effects blood sugar and insulin levels in your body. Not only is this inherently linked to obesity, but it also leads to the onset of type 2 diabetes. 
  • LPL Interference. Lipoprotein Lipase (LPL) is one of the enzymes that breaks down fat for energy use. When that enzyme is inhibited, the fat is stored instead of burned. Studies have shown LDL levels to rise over ten times when going from sitting to standing. Most importantly, this can’t be made up for with the addition of exercise in shorter sessions after being seated all day. 
  • Mobility and Muscular Issues. Muscle tissue is generally healthiest when it is being challenged on a regular basis, or at the least being used to move your body around a bit. When you’re on your rear all day, muscles loose their pliability and subsequent range of motion. It’s kind of how your body might feel when you first stand up out of bed in the morning, but eventually experiencing such stiffness all day long, every day. 
  • Mental Health. Reducing overall circulation makes it more difficult for mood-enhancing hormones to find their appropriate receptor sites. Depression is 47% more likely to hit those that sit more than seven hours a day as opposed to those that sit four or less. 

The Fix 

My sit/stand workstation with 3 monitors to melt my eyeballs

1. Get a Standing Desk

A simple solution for a simple problem: get off your ass. After extensive research, I decided on a frame from UpliftDesk, using my existing Ikea desktop. It adjusts from 43" to 96" wide and has a control box that enables you to quickly go from sitting to standing with the addition of four programable presets. At the time of this writing, it is $469.00 delivered, about the price of a few chiropractor visits. I began with standing breaks then went to half sitting half standing and now just take sitting breaks from standing most of the day. I had it all together in under an hour and can confidently say it has completely changed the way I feel at work, from physical comfort to mental acuity. Those who want to take it to the next level can get the treadmill desk

2. Taking Movement Breaks

Example of some Pomodoro sprints coupled with movement breaks

It has been shown that people don’t do too well on any given task after 25 minutes of intent focus. The Pomodoro Work Method advocates a 5 minute break for every 25 minutes of work. The idea is to make that 25 minutes a distraction-free sprint of productivity where your tasks are measured in "Pomodoros" as opposed to hours. I use this  $1.99 Pomodoro Timer on all my Macs. There are many free ones, but I like the user experience of this and how it sits in my system tray for easy access. The breaks are perfect opportunities for transitioning your desk from sitting to standing, doing some in-place exercises, drinking some water, stretching or even taking a short walk. When blocking out my tasks for the day by the number of Pomodoros they'll each take, I’ll also factor in what to do on my breaks. Here are a few ideas for movement in close quarters. You can even keep a dumbbell, kettlebell or resistance bands under your desk for some added effort. 

3. Walking Meetings 

Next time you get sequestered into the small, oxygen deprived conference room or called for your third cup of Starbucks, suggest a meeting in motion instead. Not only will it reenergize and de-stress you, but many people find the act of moving while conversing to lead to a more productive meeting outcome. Steve Jobs preferred to have most of his serious conversations while waling and was especially partial to being on his feet for a first encounter with someone. Other greats who preferred to walk while they worked include Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, Harry Truman and Charles Dickens. 

4. Prioritizing Movement

Assuming one gets a full eight hours of sleep, It would seem that squeezing in a single hour of the remaining sixteen to use their body a bit would be reasonable. Right? Wrong. In the United States, 80% do less than half of that. Although implementing some non-sitting options is irreplaceable, committing a stretch of time for some movement will go a long way when trying to balance against pecking at a keyboard and staring at a box of lights all day. Regardless of your skin color, gender, job or bank account, we are all having this experience through the physical vessel of our body. It’s easy to ignore that fact until something goes wrong with it. This is especially sad when what goes wrong is completely preventable. Use it or lose it is the condensed instruction manual for keeping all those moving parts functional and intact. I tend to do best when scheduling it first ting in the morning- before the momentum of endless calls and meetings. If the word “exercise” makes you cringe, replace it with “play” and just do something fun while exerting a little physical effort. Learn more about a life full of movement here. It really should take precedence over most other things, especially your job. 

5. Mindfulness

It has been proven repeatedly that stress can wreak more havoc on your body than just about anything else. In fact, it’s the biggest proxy killer we face today and The American Medical Association has confirmed that it is the root cause of more than 60% of all human disease and illness. That said, it would be irresponsible to consider your overall health at work without addressing this component. Spending just 5-10 minutes a day on a mindfulness practice can reduce cortisol levels and stress on a neurochemical level. Taking a few minutes at your desk or even in your car to let it all go is one of the most simple and effective ways to stay healthy at work. You can even combine movement with mindfulness and try a walking meditation or some yoga practices. Although it can make all the difference in your stress levels at work, you don't need to do it during the day. Upon awakening or before sleeping are also great options. Check out the Headspace app for some free guided meditations by my friend Andy

21 Days Later

Just the switch to a sit/stand workstation made a profound difference as to how I felt after a long day in the office. One of the most noticeable differences was how I felt mentally at the end of the day and physically upon getting up in the morning. Incorporating some type of mindfulness practice is a whole task upon itself, but will have a profound impact on your mind and body inside and out of the workplace. I've continued all these practices long after the 21 day trial and plan to keep looking for ways to make my time in front of the computer a little more primal. 

-Elijah Szasz