Sitting at Your Desk May be Hazardous to Your Health

Your desk chair may be the most dangerous object in your office, according to a recent New York Times story by Olivia Judson, which is based on several recent medical studies.


By Tom Groenfeldt

Sitting, said Judson, is dangerous, even if you are a regular gym rat, run, or do other exercise on a regular basis. “Those who sit the most during the rest of the day have larger waists and worse profiles of blood pressure and blood sugar than those who sit less,” she said.

As if CIOs don’t have enough to worry about, here is a warning about worker health. Where studies lead, lawsuits often follow.

So, what to do? Get a desk you can stand at. A friend in London has a standing desk with a small bar-stool seat, so he can sit back every now and again to give his legs a break. Another friend uses an exercise ball as an office chair -- the constant movement to maintain balance and distance from the desk provides exercise all day long.

A physician suggested that I try to spend at least part of the day with my feet out on an ottoman while I work. Sitting in a regular chair with legs bent at the knees restricts blood circulation to the lower leg and can lead to blood clots. The worst way to sit is with your ankles wrapping around the legs of the chair so your lower legs are actually beneath your body. I invested in a table on wheels (about $100) that slides between my Stressless Chair and ottoman. In another office I just built a low table ($25 or so) which does the same thing, although not as elegantly. I had to modify it a few times to fit the width of the chair and get the proper height. (Dimensions on request).

Studies have some modestly good news as well. Workers who sit at a computer all day long can improve their health with frequent short breaks, standing up to stretch, or walking down the corridor.

Stand-up desks are plentiful and even in the $500 range they can come with electric motors to raise or lower them for easy adjustment. A search on the Internet for “adjustable height desks” will turn up dozens of suppliers.

Standing desks have a good pedigree. John F. Kennedy worked at one to ease the pain of a back injured during WWII. Sites promoting adjustable height desks claim that Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Jefferson all favored standing when they worked. Didn’t Churchill also start his day with a bottle of Champagne while he soaked in the bathtub? Perhaps that should be next on the health agenda for IT workers.

Perhaps the ultimate healthy way to work is combining a computer desk with a stationary bike or a treadmill.

See the TrekDesk Treadmill Desk for example. Designed by Steve Bordley, it is a high desk that fits over a treadmill, although you could probably rig something similar with a wireless keyboard and a large monitor on a shelf or a wall/ceiling bracket. Brodley said he lost 25 pounds by walking at work and got rid of back troubles. Plus, according to the dailygrommet Web site, “researchers say walking can help lift moods and even improve memory capacity.”

Then again, perhaps it is time to get away from the keyboard and use voice recognition software, at least part of the time. Somehow I suspect that working at a small, lightweight Fujitsu LifeBook, which doesn’t offer any adjustments at all, is the worst of all possible worlds.

But there are also exercises you can do in your chair -- see the book, “Get Fit While You Sit.”

Charlene Torkelson, who looks pretty fit, but not intimidatingly so, in the book’s photographic illustrations, provides a one-hour chair program with warm-up, breathing, stretches, twists, leg lifts, and chair sit-ups and wall push-ups, plus a range of exercises with light hand weights.

For cubicle workers who don’t have an hour to work out in a chair at the office, she offers two 10-minute “miracle” workouts, which she illustrates dressed in an office outfit to show how you can do this during work without attracting too much attention.

Get some exercise, loosen up your body, feel better and think more clearly.

It’s possible, even in a very busy workday.

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