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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Field Notes in Ergonomic Diversity: Standup Workers Speak

Dr. Michael Roizen marches, in steady, measured steps, at the forefront of the upright workers movement. That “movement” is not a union uprising, but a reference to the growing numbers of office workers who are rising from their chairs to stand, even walk, for health reasons.

Dr. Roizen, the chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, has been a personal proponent of not sitting at work for years - before the accumulation of recent research on the hazards of sitting for hours, and before the proliferation of standing and treadmill desks in the last few years, which I wrote about on Sunday.

Dr. Roizen typically works at a treadmill desk for hours a day, and his short health-tip videos are called “Treadmill Talks.” In these Web videos, he delivers his advice while walking on the treadmill, as in this one.

He is an advocate of the 10,000 steps-a-day regimen for better health, and his treadmill desk helps him reach and surpass that goal. “For me, this setup is a way around inactivity,” he said.

Doesn't trekking on a treadmill hamper office work? The secret is to get the pace right, he said. Dr. Roizen has experimented on himself, and found he can effectively handle conference calls while walking at 3.3 miles per hour, typing to reply to e-mails at 1.8 mph, and more serious writing at 1.7 mph.

Standers, though, outnumber treadmill walkers. Patrick Skerrett, managing editor of Harvard Health Publications, is a committed stander. Until recently, the few people who stood while doing office work were those trying to combat chronic back pain. And many companies still require a letter from a doctor, describing some ailment, before they offer an alternative to the office chair.

But today, many workers who stand up for part of the day do it because they enjoy the diversity of positions, and it makes them feel better and more alert - like Mr. Skerrett. Two years ago, he bought an inexpensive, adjustable -height desk, which he paid for himself. In an eight-hour day, he says he will stand for perhaps six hours. “Sometimes, I sit down because I'm tired of standing,” Mr. Skerrett said. “It's all by choice.”

The recent research that points to the health hazards of extended sitting has prompted some standers. Pam Gotto, executive assistant to the president of the Marshfield Clinic, got an adjustable desk that allows her to sit or stand about a year ago, after reading studies on sitting-related risks. Ms. Gotto, 46, has been an administrative worker for the Wisconsin health provider for 26 years, and “ninety nine percent of that time was sitting,” she said. Today, he moves up and down, standing about 20 percent of the time. “Whenever I get tired of sitting, I stand,” she explained.

Working while standing was an adjustment. “But I quickly got used to it, and I would never go back,” Ms. Gotto said.

Chairs, of course, are not enemies. “Even if you took all the chairs away, as humans we would find a way to sit,” said Dr. James Levine of Mayo Clinic, a leading researcher in the field of inactivity studies. The problem, as with so many things, is a matter of degree - sitting too much. The research suggests that damage begins after a person is sitting continuously for an hour or more.

So regular breaks, standing and walking around, seem commonsense advice. “Find ways to restructure activity into the day,” said Dr. Toni Yancey, a professor of health services at the University of California, Los Angeles. When meeting with a colleague, take a walk and talk, she suggests. Some companies, she adds, have begun scheduling in a couple of 10-minute group exercise breaks in the workday. “It's an oasis in the middle of a stressful day,” she said.

Establishing habits and routines of movement and activity in the day, Dr. Yancey said, are key. “If it's not your default option, it tends not to happen,” she said.

And there is no one-size-fits-all formula. Dr. Yancey, for example, has a treadmill desk at work, but mostly she pedals away on a recumbent exercise bike while working at home.