Taking a stand

A select few employers in Southern Oregon are helping employees fight the sitting disease
Andrea Kramer works while standing at her station at Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon in Central Point. Julia Moore photoJulia Moore

It didn't take a chiropractor to convince Christy Taylor that sitting all day is bad for her health. She could feel it in every creak of her neck and cramp in her shoulders.

"I used to get headaches, and I think it was caused by my neck and back pain," she says. "I just was scrunched over."

If you must sit ...

If office accommodations don't allow for standing, experts recommend reducing recreational hours spent sitting. Start by carrying a stopwatch to log the minutes spent sitting to watch television, use the computer, eat or drive. Track the time for three or four days to get the average time spent sitting daily. Then figure out a way to replace a half-hour of sitting time with a half-hour of movement.

When sitting is unavoidable, punctuate every half-hour with two minutes of active movement: Walk around the living room or office. Better yet, go outside for a stroll, and think of it as taking a stand against the sitting disease.

But Taylor did doubt her chiropractor's advice to adjust her office workstation so she could stand up or sit down. Such a simple solution couldn't make that much difference, thought Taylor, development services administrator for the city of Medford's Building Safety Department.

"I wasn't a believer at first, but I am now."

Since raising her desk late last year to accommodate standing up, Taylor says she no longer needs chiropractic adjustments and feels like her workday is more productive. As numerous city employees on the second floor of the city's Lausmann Annex favor such ergonomic retrofits, cubicles are becoming spots for standing, not sitting.

"It just feels good," says Debbie Strigle administrative-support technician for the city's planning department. "Sitting all day doesn't work."

A chiropractic patient for 25 years, Strigle, along with many other members of the country's sedentary sector, suffers from the so-called "sitting disease," which experts say causes not only chronic pain but is a factor in the soaring rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States. By standing instead of sitting for two and a half hours every day, desk-bound employees would burn up to 350 additional calories per day, reduce their health care costs and perform better at their jobs, according to Mayo Clinic endocrinologist James Levine.

It's no secret that sitting for hours at a time — whether on a couch or in front of a computer — results in stiffness. That sensation arises from muscle fibers and connective tissues contracting during periods of inactivity. When it adapts to a sedentary lifestyle, the body produces less of its natural lubricating substances, so tissues become dry, shortened, inflexible and much more likely to tear, according to a recent article in Adventure Sports Weekly. Lack of movement also reduces blood supply to the bones, making them more brittle and fragile.

"The human body's not made to sit," says Jared Hill, ergonomic consultant for Asante Work Health in Medford.

Lower-back pain is among cubicle dwellers' most common complaints, says Hill, because sitting flattens out the spine's natural S-curve and puts 10 times the compression forces on vertebrae than standing. Circulation is hampered in legs pressed against the edge of a seat, he adds.

Sitting's silent assault on health led Levine to coin the hot new phrase "sitting is the new smoking." The physician and other researchers are conducting several experiments around the world that entail workplace interventions. In Minneapolis, the desks of 30 employees for a maker of environment-friendly cleaning supplies were replaced with adjustable "work-fit" stations. Developed by Ergotron of St. Paul, Minn., they give employees the option to sit or stand while working on their computers.

Although rarely seen in the Rogue Valley, the concept has been around for years, says Hill, citing Jackson County's 9-1-1 and public-safety dispatching center as the "perfect example." The center had stand-up workstations before moving to a new Central Point building in November 2009. In the updated facility, entire consoles — not just chairs — raise and lower with the push of a button.

"We work 10-hour shifts, sometimes 12, and the ability to stand and do your work helps them quite a bit," says Margie Moulin, director of Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon. "You're tethered to your console here."

Federal grants paid to outfit 16 consoles, each with seven monitors on the upper table and three keyboards on the lower. Foot pedals can cue operators' microphones while their hands are engaged typing, says Moulin.

"It helps you stay alert because you can be up and down," she says. "You need to be available every second to answer that radio."

The demands on emergency dispatchers don't really compare with other types of cubicle work, says Moulin, noting that desks for ECSO's dozen administrators are not outfitted for standing up. Although the configuration would be ideal for 9-to-5 employees, there is no plan to improve those workstations, culled from the center's former location, because ECSO has other budget priorities, she says.

"I would certainly do more work standing because it's certainly healthier."

Companies that build office furniture are paying attention and making their products more affordable, says Hill. But while the trend remains "reactionary," workers like Taylor "piecemeal" their workstations by attaching monitors to walls and propping their keyboards on raised planks of plywood, he says.

"We're at the frontiers of really seeing that transition."

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