Is Your Chair Killing You?

Hours of nonstop sitting may lead to increased risks of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression and early death.

By Rona Cherry


Like many of you, I spend hours and hours in front of a computer. To relax I often watch hours of TV—the news, classic films, hot new series or sports. What’s involved? A great deal of sitting.

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review sitting is so pervasive today that we don’t even realize how many hours we spend seated. I  became aware of this when my back went out and my physical therapist chided me for sitting at my desk for hours on end. Still, I didn’t think the health consequences would be great so long as I exercised properly, watched what I lifted, and walked a lot.

How wrong I was! According to an accumulating body of research, hours of nonstop sitting may lead to increased risks of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression and early death—even if you run every morning, do 100 sit-ups daily, or are a regular at your gym. “The assumption has been that if you’re fit and physically active, that will protect you, even if you spend a huge amount of time sitting each day,” says Dr. Rebecca Seguin-Fowler, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University. “But that’s not entirely the case.”

Dr. Seguin-Fowler led a study of 93,000 women aged 50 to 79. The study, published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that women who spent more than 11 hours sitting or resting each day faced a 12 percent higher risk of dying early—from any cause—than energetic women who spent four hours or less seated or laying down (but not sleeping). Dr. Anup Kanodia, M.D., assistant professor at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, warns, “sitting is the new smoking.” A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concludes that for every hour an individual sits in front of the TV, he or she cuts life expectancy by 22 minutes. In contrast, smoking a single cigarette reduces life expectancy by only 11 minutes.

Why does this happen? Scientists say our bodies evolved to stand upright and for thousands of generations we were more physically active. “Before the Internet, we typically walked inside a store to shop, walked inside libraries for books or information, and we even walked to video stores to take out a movie,” says Celeste Carlucci, founder of New York’s FallStop, MoveStrong fitness program for seniors. But now we can shop, read, watch TV, and work without moving much. “This weakens the very muscles we so desperately need to remain strong and confident when we move,” she says. Warns Dr. James A. Levine, M.D., PhD, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine, “The chair is out to kill us.”

Standing Desks

Experts advise striving for a 50:50 ratio between sitting and standing. If you are willing to splurge on a piece of furniture, one option is to consider a standing desk. (You can either stand while you work or sit on a high stool.) These desks are growing in popularity and may reflect a return to the past. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, office workers such as accountants, clerks and managers, typically stood while they worked. Even Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Winston Churchill worked at standing desks throughout their lives and they outlived many of their contemporaries.

Fixed-height desks are cheaper than adjustable-height ones, but adjustable height desks provide the option of sitting when you feel tired and allow you to make constant tweaks to accommodate how you feel standing on your feet. Some of the most popular desks are GeekDeskMax (starting at $749), Biomorph (Level Series above left, starting at $1,195) and XDesk (SoloPlus, above right, $997 for basic model).

Treadmill desks are also growing in popularity. These allow you to walk slowly while you work; users typically burn about 100 to 130 calories per hour walking less than two miles an hour and can lose 44 to 66 pounds in a year without even breaking a sweat. Some popular models are the TrekDesk ($650), the height-adjustable LifeSpan TR12000-DT5 (above left, $1,299) and the SteelCase WalkStation (above right, $4,566) designed by Dr. Levine.

Dr. Seguin now uses a standing desk and loves doing so. However, it took time to adjust. “At first I tried standing for longer periods than I should have and my back and my feet hurt a bit,” she explains. “So I shortened the initial sessions to about 15 minutes and worked up to longer periods. Now I find myself paying very good attention to my posture. I am also more inclined to move around my office for various tasks because I’m already standing.”

To test a standing desk I recently made a makeshift standing desk so I could experience it. To do so I stacked some sturdy boxes on my dining room table and put my laptop on top. I tried it for about an hour; then my legs felt tired, my feet started to ache and I wound up returning to my computer chair. But since I now know that it’s best to vary standing with sitting, I am committed to extending the experiment. I may wind up buying a $60 Imprint Comfort Mat designed to help prevent foot fatigue.

By the way, if you happen to see a person standing in a subway car with plenty of empty seats, that probably will be me.
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Strategies for Standing More

Use a cordless headset and walk around (or do exercises such as squats and lunges) during phone calls.

Set an alarm on your phone or computer to remind you to stand up, stretch, and walk the hallways every 20 minutes. If you have trouble remembering to do this, you can download free apps like Time Out (Mac), StandApp (iPhone and iPad), Workrave (Windows) that gently remind you to take a break on a regular basis.

Use the printer on the other side of the office or ideally on another floor (and take the stairs). If you work at home, put your printer in an area away from your desk.

At work, use the restroom that’s the furthest away from your desk or on another floor of your office building or house.

When you need to talk to someone else in the office, walk over there rather than emailing or calling.

Stand up to use your wastebasket instead of rolling your chair.

If you’re reading, stand up and stretch after a chapter or two.

If you work at home, take frequent breaks, walk around the block, do simple chores that require standing. Ditto if you are watching TV: use commercial time for exercise or stretching breaks.
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Rona Cherry has written about health and wellness for The New York Times Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Vegetarian Times, and many other publications. She was the editor-in-chief of several national magazines, including Fitness and Longevity. She is currently an editorial and PR consultant with regional publications and nonprofits.

You may enjoy other NYCitywoman stories by Rona Cherry

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