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Taking A Stand For Office Ergonomics

December 2, 2012

UNBOXED STEVE LOHR

Photo: STEPHANIE DIANI FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES



The health studies that conclude  that people should sit less, and get  up and move around more, have  always struck me as fitting into the  “well, duh” category.

 

But a closer look at the accumulating  research on sitting reveals something  more intriguing, and disturbing: the  health hazards of sitting for long  stretches are significant even for people  who are quite active when they’re not sitting down. That point was reiterated  recently in two studies, published in  The British Journal of Sports Medicine  and in Diabetologia, a journal of the European  Association for the Study of Diabetes.

Suppose you stick to a five-times-aweek  gym regimen, as I do, and have  put in a lifetime of hard cardio exercise,  and have a resting heart rate that’s a  significant fraction below the norm. That doesn’t inoculate you, apparently,  from the perils of sitting.

The research comes more from observing  the health results of people’s  behavior than from discovering the biological  and genetic triggers that may be  associated with extended sitting. Still,  scientists have determined that after an  hour or more of sitting, the production  of enzymes that burn fat in the body declines  by as much as 90 percent. Extended  sitting, they add, slows the  body’s metabolism of glucose and lowers  the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol  in the blood. Those are risk factors toward  developing heart disease and  Type 2 diabetes. 

“The science is still evolving, but we  believe that sitting is harmful in itself,”  says Dr. Toni Yancey, a professor of  health services at the University of California,  Los Angeles. 

Yet many of us still spend long hours  each day sitting in front of a computer. 

The good news is that when creative  capitalism is working as it should, problems  open the door to opportunity. New  knowledge spreads, attitudes shift, consumer  demand emerges and companies  and entrepreneurs develop new products.  That process is under way, addressing  what might be called the sitting  crisis. The results have been workstations  that allow modern information  workers to stand, even walk, while toiling  at a keyboard. 

Dr. Yancey goes further. She has a  treadmill desk in the office and works  on her recumbent bike at home. 

If there is a movement toward ergonomic  diversity and upright work in the  information age, it will also be a return  to the past. Today, the diligent worker  tends to be defined as a person who  puts in long hours crouched in front of a  screen. But in the 19th and early 20th  centuries, office workers, like clerks, accountants  and managers, mostly stood.  Sitting was slacking. And if you stand at  work today, you join a distinguished lineage  — Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin,  Winston Churchill, Vladimir Nabokov  and, according to a recent profile in  The New York Times, Philip Roth. 

DR. JAMES A. LEVINE of the  Mayo Clinic is a leading researcher  in the field of inactivity  studies. When he began his research 15  years ago, he says, it was seen as a novelty. 

“But it’s totally mainstream now,” he  says. “There’s been an explosion of research  in this area, because the health  care cost implications are so enormous.” 

Steelcase, the big maker of office furniture,  has seen a similar trend in the  emerging marketplace for adjustable  workstations, which allow workers to sit  or stand during the day, and for workstations  with a treadmill underneath for  walking. (Its treadmill model was inspired  by Dr. Levine, who built his own  and shared his research with Steelcase.)

The company offered its first models  of height-adjustable desks in 2004. In  the last five years, sales of its lines of  adjustable desks and the treadmill desk  have surged fivefold, to more than $40  million. Its models for stand-up work  range from about $1,600 to more than  $4,000 for a desk that includes an actual  treadmill. Corporate customers include  Chevron, Intel, Allstate, Boeing, Apple  and Google.

“It started out very small, but it’s not  a niche market anymore,” says Allan  Smith, vice president for product marketing  at Steelcase. 

The Steelcase offerings are the Mercedes-  Benzes and Cadillacs of upright  workstations, but there are plenty of  Chevys as well, especially from small,  entrepreneurial companies.

In 2009, Daniel Sharkey was laid off  as a plant manager of a tool-and-die factory,  after nearly 30 years with the company.  A garage tinkerer, Mr. Sharkey  had designed his own adjustable desk  for standing. On a whim, he called it the  kangaroo desk, because “it holds things,  and goes up and down.” He says that  when he lost his job, his wife, Kathy, told  him, “People think that kangaroo thing  is pretty neat.” 

Today, Mr. Sharkey’s company, Ergo  Desktop, employs 16 people at its 8,000-  square-foot assembly factory in Celina,  Ohio. Sales of its several models, priced  from $260 to $600, have quadrupled in  the last year, and it now ships tens of  thousands of workstations a year. 

Steve Bordley of Scottsdale, Ariz.,  also designed a solution for himself that  became a full-time business. After a leg  injury left him unable to run, he gained  weight. So he fixed up a desktop that  could be mounted on a treadmill he already  owned. He walked slowly on the  treadmill while making phone calls and  working on a computer. In six weeks,  Mr. Bordley says, he lost 25 pounds and his nagging back pain vanished.

He quit the commercial real estate  business and founded TrekDesk in 2007.  He began shipping his desk the next  year. (The treadmill must be supplied  by the user.) Sales have grown tenfold  from 2008, with several thousand of the  desks, priced at $479, now sold annually. 

“It’s gone from being treated as a  laughingstock to a product that many  people find genuinely interesting,” Mr.  Bordley says. 

There is also a growing collection of  do-it-yourself solutions for stand-up  work. Many are posted on Web sites like  howtogeek.com, and freely shared like  recipes. For example, Colin Nederkoorn,  chief executive of an e-mail marketing  start-up, Customer.io, has posted  one such design on his blog. Such setups  can cost as little as $30 or even less,  if cobbled together with available materials. 

Upright workstations were  hailed recently by no less a trend  spotter of modern work habits  and gadgetry than Wired magazine. In  its October issue, it chose “Get a Standing  Desk” as one of its “18 Data-Driven  Ways to Be Happier, Healthier and  Even a Little Smarter.” 

The magazine has kept tabs on the  evolving standing-desk research and  marketplace, and several staff members  have become converts themselves  in the last few months. 

“And we’re all universally happy  about it,” Thomas Goetz, Wired’s executive  editor, wrote in an e-mail — sent  from his new standing desk.

 

Dr. Toni Yancey, professor of health services at U.C.L.A.,

gets work done while riding a recumbent bicycle at home.

She also uses a treadmill desk at the office.

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