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Campus News

Standing at your desk can lead to health benefits

By LAUREN NEWKIRK MAYNARD

Published March 6, 2014

“I am amazed at how much more energetic I feel at the end of the day.”
Pavani Ram, associate professor
Department of Social and Preventive Medicine

When epidemiologist Pavani Ram gets to her office in the mornings, she drops her bags, logs into her computer,  kicks off her shoes and begins work — standing up.

Ram, associate professor of social and preventive medicine, has been using a standing desk since 2011, when she realized she was “gaining a few pounds each year and generally feeling sluggish in the afternoon and evening.”

That’s all changed now that she stands at her desk. “I am amazed at how much more energetic I feel at the end of the day,” she says. “I no longer have lower back pain and am a more active person.”

Ram and many other UB faculty and staff are standing up for their health and well-being, using a variety of methods to get themselves moving.

Standing desks, where the work surface is raised to standing height, is one of these tools and has caught on in workplaces around the country. A reaction to studies and media attention on America’s battle with the bulge and the health risks associated with sitting around all day, standing at work has become one way we can offset the effects of sitting in front of the TV, at meetings and in our cars.

A noted study by the Mayo Clinic used motion-tracking sensors to determine why some people lost weight while others didn’t, even if they exercised regularly. The six-year experiment found that people who gained weight were sitting two hours more per day than those who were not — and with significant harm to their overall health.

Standing desk

Colleen Kilanowski works at her desk in the Behavioral Medicine Lab in Farber Hall. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

When you sit, experts say, the heart and metabolism slow down; calorie-burning drops to one calorie per minute — a third of what you burn while running. Blood sugar, fat and cholesterol levels also rise, increasing the risk for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even certain cancers.

The good news: Even a few breaks from sitting per day can help reverse these effects. “You don’t have to stand for five hours a day; in fact, it can be difficult for some people with bad feet or knees,” says Carol Schmeidler, a program manager for UB’s Environmental Health and Safety office. She and colleague Kelly Haidar work part-time as UB’s ergonomic experts, helping employees use proper posture and workstation positions to improve their well-being on the job.

“You have to find what works and, hopefully, your department and physician will support you. But it doesn’t take much to do it,” Schmeidler says.

“I didn’t really find it difficult to switch from sitting to standing,” Ram recalls. She has a gel mat and adds that “shifting from foot to foot is part of staying energized. I also have the luxury of having a second table at which I can sit, which I still like to do for some types of work.” 

Ram isn’t alone: An email to the medical school listserv revealed that many of its faculty and staff are standing — and have been for years.

Obesity expert Leonard Epstein has used a standing desk for 10 years in his Behavioral Medicine Lab, and he encouraged Jennifer Temple, assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences, and John Leddy, associate professor of orthopaedics, to try it. Both have been standing for almost a decade.

“Len got me into it while I was a postdoc,” says Temple, adding that she loves standing, especially during pregnancy. “I have a chair that I use rarely, but it gives me the option if I want. I don’t think I can ever go back to sitting again.”

Leddy agrees, and uses a small stool to alternate lifting his legs. “On a day when I am mostly doing research and writing, I’ll stand for eight hours,” he says.

Haider stresses that it’s best to ease into standing slowly for a few minutes, increasing your vertical hours to several a day as your muscles get used to the new position.

EH&S’ Tips for a Healthier Workstation

  • Whether you sit or stand, move throughout the day as often as possible, even in small amounts. Stand while you talk on the phone, at meetings or walk to talk to people down the hall rather than calling. Fidgeting is encouraged.
  • Position a standing desk so your arms are at your sides at a 90-degree angle and your wrists are neutral (flat) at the keyboard, fingers curled to type.
  • The top of your computer monitor should be parallel to your eyebrows. Don’t crane your neck up or down to view the screen.
  • If you stand most of the time, sit while doing non-computer work, like eating lunch, which rests muscles and joints.
  • Wear comfortable, flat shoes and use a cushioned mat and/or footrest to decrease pressure on the feet

Standing desks come in all shapes, sizes and price points. EH&S can provide recommendations, as well as office presentations and individual ergonomic assessments. Its Winspear Avenue office on the South Campus includes an “ergo” lab with examples of desk, chairs, computer mice and other work equipment designed to promote healthy posture. EH&S also offers online assistance in setting up works spaces.

Mark Swihart, professor of chemical and biological engineering and co-director of the Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics, says he spent $850 on his 24x36-inch adjustable “Versatable” a few months ago, while several members of Epstein’s Behavioral Medicine Lab purchased less pricey drafting tables, which they also can adjust.

Homemade desks have popped up around campus, too, cobbled from stacks of books to reams of paper that raise keyboards and monitors. Jelena Vujcic, a research scientist in Ram’s office, is tall, so she used higher bookshelves to build her workstation.

Schmeidler just warns DIYers to make sure they use the correct height and distances for proper posture.

Christopher Schaeffer, a program director in internal medicine, followed a popular online “hack” recipe for his desk, bolting a shelf to a small table — both from Ikea. Total cost: $22.

“This was a small investment and has been a bit challenging,” Schaeffer admits. “It is doing the job, though. I’m more awake in the afternoons and I do less stupid Internet surfing and shorter emails.”

READER COMMENT

I bought an over-the-bed patient table, the type that is used in hospitals, from someone on craigslist for $50. The height is adjustable and it's on wheels so it can easily be moved out of the way if I want to sit. The majority of the time I use a laptop in a docking station on the table, but I also use my desktop PC by placing the keyboard and mouse on the "patient table."

 

Barbara Petrie