The War on Sitting
Do you know why the seating areas at sporting venues are called stands? Way back when, fans often stood to watch games, particularly baseball. No bleachers, no chairs with seatbacks and armrests, no cup holders. Those famous bleachers in Chicago’s Wrigley Field? In the gangster days a century ago, those were standing-room areas.
Now, we sit. And sit. At work. At home. At play.
Bethany Barone Gibbs, a Mt. Lebanon native now living in South Fayette, wants us to stand up to the trend of spending so much time on our duffs. Informally, she calls it the war on sitting.
Formally, Barone Gibbs is an assistant professor of health and physical activity, and clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh’s Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center. She’s the principal investigator on an ongoing research project called Reset BP, or blood pressure, that involves studying people with 9-to-5 desk jobs. Participants are provided with adjustable sit-stand desks, and the amount of time they sit or stand is tracked.
While the scientific portion of her study is limited in scope to looking at the effect of sitting—or, more specifically, of not sitting—on blood pressure, Barone Gibbs is a strong proponent of the overall movement to get people on their feet for better health. Up off the coach, out of chairs at work, even out of seats at social outings. Call her a sergeant in the war on sitting.
Perhaps you’ve heard it described like this: Sitting is the new smoking. Exactly, Barone Gibbs says.
“If you think about an average person’s day, they commute really far to work, sit in their car forever. They do get up to walk into their office, maybe a very little distance, then they sit at their desk, and for hours without even getting up. That’s a valued behavior. That’s what your boss wants—butts in the seats.
“Then people eat lunch at their desk. I do it. I’m standing, but I do it.
“And then you commute home. Maybe you do curbside pickup for your groceries or your dinner on the way home. And then you sit and watch TV while you eat. So basically the whole day you could almost never get up.”
One of the things Barone Gibbs likes about Mt. Lebanon is its reputation as a walking community. Residents can walk to school, to a coffee shop or just around their neighborhood for a pleasant, safe way to join the war on sitting.
It doesn’t take being a study participant for some people to want to join the movement.
Jay Pullen of Morrison Drive is a data analyst who previously spent several years at the Dick’s Sporting Goods corporate headquarters, where he got to choose what type of desk he used. He chose a computer fixed at standing height with a barstool-height chair to use seamlessly when he got tired of standing. He estimates he spent about half his work time standing.
“I wanted to try standing up because I had heard of all the health benefits,” Pullen says. “I also have a really bad habit. A lot of what I do is try and figure out problems. I have to study what I’m looking at on the screen. When I start thinking hard, I’ll end up crossing my legs and, even more, I tilt way over to one side. I’ll move over to my left hip, and that’s really bad for my back, and then that will start hurting and I’ll switch over to my right hip.
“This was an effort to stop doing that. I don’t do it when I’m standing. I can kind of walk around as I’m standing, step up or step back, move around more while I’m looking at my screen, stand up on my toes or just move around trying to work out a problem.”
Pullen now works at Highmark in downtown Pittsburgh. Initially, he was assigned a standard-height sitting desk, but he had the option of requesting a sit-stand option or a standing-height desk—and he was considering that because he found that he was back to his bad habits while sitting.
“They’re really big on the work-life-home balance,” Pullen says
“One of the things we do, and that my boss does, is when we have our one-on-one weekly meeting, we’ll just get up and walk around the Point.”
That kind of management would make Barone Gibbs proud. She abhors the sweatshop mentality—that if you’re not sitting at your desk and toiling away, then you’re not being productive.
Barone Gibbs would argue that viewpoint is archaic, that workers who take breaks from sitting are not only healthier but also better workers. She promotes short breaks to walk around at least once an hour, and standing to work 15-30 minutes an hour.
“I think that this American idea that we have to sit at our desks and never leave … we can get around that,” she says. “I think a lot of people who practice (breaks and standing to work) realize it’s not a detriment to work at all. People often report feeling more productive and having more energy and less pain, and then they can do their jobs better and they’re happier.
“Not all the business owners are buying that, but I hope we’ll evolve to that kind of thinking.”
Count Jocelyn Kramer in. Kramer, Vernon Drive, is a partner at Weiss Burkardt Kramer law firm. She and her husband, Joe, who owns a business related to devices for people with mobility issues, use sit-stand desks and offer them to their employees.
“My husband introduced me to the desk because he had some lower back pain, and we both have pretty sedentary jobs,” Kramer says. “He got one for our home office. From that point, I thought it was awesome, so I wanted one at work.”
Sit-stand desks, she discovered, promote a better work environment.
“I track people’s time. We bill by the tenth of an hour,” Kramer says. “I find my folks who have more flexibility and are self-motivated and healthy are more productive than folks who spend their entire day sitting at their desk.
“It is definitely contrary to the old-school legal profession perspective. Believe me, some of the older folks made fun of me a lot.”
She notes, however, that one partner who initially poked fun at the idea ended up getting a sit-stand desk.
Some of those adjustable desks and computer tables are expensive, but Gibbs Barone points out that fixed standing-height desks can be an alternative. So can using a bar-height surface such as a kitchen island at home, or a less expensive adjustable table such as those used to serve meals in hospitals.
Yes, Gibbs Barone wants everyone to carry the standing habit over to home and all aspects of their lives. She says while going to the gym or doing other rigorous exercise regularly is great, it’s not enough if people spend the rest of their waking time mostly sitting.
Even before her study began, Gibbs Barone says, there was a lot of evidence that sitting for long periods of time negatively affects a lot of the body’s systems, including blood flow. And yes, lounging on the couch or putting your feet up still count as sitting.
The participants in Gibbs Barone’s study are tracked for three months with inclinometers, which are about the size of a sugar packet and are taped to the leg. They track whether the person’s leg is parallel or perpendicular to the ground. They also use monitors that track when a person is moving.
“We have a really good characterization of what you’re doing all day,” Barone Gibbs says.
Kimberly Huber of Moreland Drive is Barone Gibbs’ project coordinator. She thinks of it as a sedentary behavior intervention study, and she’s a staunch supporter of the war on sitting.
Before she had this job, Huber had a standard-height desk. Now she’s got the sit-stand variety, and she’s thrilled with it.
“I’m up and down a lot, so I’m more alert,” she says. “My hope is that we can give people an overall sense of better well-being and feeling after not sitting for eight straight hours, breaking it up a little bit.
“We want people to change their behavior. Not only are we looking at blood pressure—that is our primary outcome—but we are collecting some secondary outcomes. A lot of that is self-report.”
That includes things such as mood and motivation.
There have been other telling studies, Barone Gibbs says, and she hopes her research project at Pitt provides further proof that the war on sitting is worth fighting.
“What we know from the research is that people who sit a lot are not as healthy as people who don’t sit as much,” she says. “We really need this hardcore evidence. We get people who are sitting a lot, we do an intervention and make them not sit so much and see if they get better.”
IMPROVE YOUR STANDING
Bethany Barone Gibbs, a researcher at Pitt’s Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center, has some tips on staying active in a sedentary world.
Find a way to do some of your work standing up. The recommendations are from 15 to 30 minutes an hour. That can look like a sit-stand desk or a high counter.
At least once an hour, try to do some kind of more intense activity, like a two- to three-minute walk. Get your muscles moving. Go to a bathroom farther away. Go to a printer farther away. Go see your colleague instead of sending an email.
At meetings, stand up at the back of or side of the room.
AWAY FROM WORK
When you watch TV for a long time, try to take breaks. It doesn’t have to be exercise. It can be doing the dishes or cleaning up.
If you have an activity prompter (such as a Fitbit), make sure the inactivity alert is on, and when it vibrates, respond to it.
In your leisure time, choose activities that don’t involve so much sitting—play outside with your kids, walk to a coffee shop, go bowling, go to a museum, play darts, play pool—rather than sitting at dinner for hours or going to a movie.
If there’s a high-top table at a restaurant or coffee shop, choose to stand there.