Get off my back about standing up


I’m sitting down as I write this. As with every other morning on NewsCut, I’ve been sitting in the same spot — my couch — for nearly six hours.

According to studies, I’ve lost two hours off my life, just today. And I don’t care; I’ve enjoyed the sitting and as I enter the last decade or so of my life, I’m not going to apologize for sitting, despite the best intentions of the experts.

That includes you, James Levine, the Mayo Clinic endocrinologist who is the godfather of getting people to stand up more. And I can appreciate his efforts. Sitting can lead to obesity. Obesity leads to disease. Disease leads to death. I get it. Disease stinks. I think the jury is still out on the whole death thing.

In his article on Vox today, Joseph Stromberg, the science writer, goes all in on not sitting. And he does so in the usual way: Adding up numbers to make the numbers even more impressive.

It varies widely from person to person, but it’s estimated that you burn an extra 50 calories per hour when standing, compared to sitting. This might not sound like a lot, but it adds up if you sit for eight hours per day, five days a week.

Standing just half that time means you’ll burn an extra 1000 calories each week without changing your diet or exercise. Do it for a year, and that’s about 50,000 extra calories — the rough equivalent of running 15 marathons.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want to run 15 marathons. First of all, let’s ignore the fact marathons aren’t all that good for you, according to some research.

But there’s also this: I’m not looking to die, I’m not looking to live forever, either. As the gospel of Pete Townshend teaches, if the latter years of one’s life could be lived as a young person, that would be preferable to the reality that we live them as old people.

So when Stromberg claims that sitting for six hours a day can shave years off your life, I’m pretty OK with that.

Time spent watching TV is often used as a convenient metric for sitting at home, since people tend to more accurately report how they watched TV on a given day than how long they sat. And research has found, for instance, that compared to adults who spend two or fewer hours per day sitting and watching TV, those who spend four or more have a 125 percent increased chance of heart attack, chest pain, or other symptoms of cardiovascular disease, even when controlling for diet and exercise.

Other work has found that adults who spend the most time sitting have a 112 percent increased chance of developing type 2 diabetes — and that for adults already at risk of developing diabetes, time spent sitting is a bigger risk factor than getting enough exercise.

All this also applies to cancer. “We observed that each 2-hour per day increase in sitting time was associated with increased risks of cancers of the colon and endometrium, and with a borderline significant increased risk of lung cancer,” says Daniela Schmid, lead author of the recent analysis of sitting and cancer risk. “The results were independent of physical activity, showing that sedentary behavior represents a potential cancer risk factor distinct from physical inactivity.”

I get it. Something’s going to kill me eventually.

I’m obviously not interested in being obese or suffering its health effects. I’ll have a salad for lunch today. I’ll eat it sitting down.

Stromberg says studies show sitting six or more hours a day will kill me 5 years sooner than when whatever is going to kill me actually kills me. And that every hour I spend watching TV, claims almost 22 minutes. So watching the final episode of Orange is the New Black last night cost me a half hour. It’s a fair trade.

And so is the time I give up by sitting out on the deck on Saturday morning, listening to the birds, watching the clouds, and reading the paper while drinking some coffee. I’ve often thought that if there’s a heaven, it involves a lot of sitting on the deck in Minnesota in June. The sooner the better, I say.

We’re not going to live forever; that’s a fact. The real tragedy, it seems to me, is we outlive our ability to sustain ourselves financially, placing burdens on our loved ones, a situation we have spent most of our lives trying to avoid.

There’s something not to stand for.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    We have a standup desk and I love it.

    • and if that brings you comfort and enjoyment, I think that’s great.

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        I think you misunderstood my comment. What I meant to do is call you lazy.

        • Ha. Well, yes, that’s the other aspect of this. The “look at me I’m standing up” crowd is a bit insufferable. An early death is a gift to avoid such constant moralizing :*)

          • MrE85

            Hey, if anyone is going to be constantly moralizing around here…but in this case, I’m with Bob. I also hate the “sitting is the new smoking” line. I write this sitting down, proudly and defiantly.

          • John

            You guys sound like a bunch of defiant old smokers and non-seat belt wearers. 🙂

          • I don’t smoke. I don’t drink much. I eat very healthy. I wear seat belts.

            The interesting things about the cause-and-effect assertions about sitting leading to more diabetes, for example, is you never hear the “chances” of developing problems because you live longer.

            My guess is you have an X% greater chance of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia for the additional five years you get by giving up TV.

            But nobody ever mentions that.

          • John

            I match you category for category there. (Except that I probably eat less healthy than I should, but most of the “super foods” taste like dirt or worse).

            In fact, I’m with you all the way on this comment. (Except I mostly gave up TV – only because I can’t find anything I want to watch, not for health reasons).

            It’s not mentioned, because it doesn’t help imply the causation that the person who did the research wants. Do people who stand live longer because the stand, or do they live longer because people who stand at work tend to be more active over all? Correlation is easy. Causation (especially with people) is nearly impossible to prove. Everyone knows/knew that cigarettes are bad for you, but it took decades and a lot of dead people to prove it.

  • jon

    We outlive our ability to sustain ourselves in more ways then just financially.

    How many folks in nursing homes can’t stand, or walk, or use the bathroom by themselves?

    While our bodies might be built for running marathons (according to some other research) in the long view of history humans normally live about 30-40 years… now we are living to an average of 80 years old (in the developed world)… our bodies literally falling apart as we get there, we are putting in new hips, new legs, new teeth, new hearts, etc. as we go…

    80 years old is the average life expectancy… and the oldest living person on record was 122 when she passed away. Now I’m no math expert (while some people at work refer to me as such) but 122 isn’t double 80, so that bell curve isn’t particularly well shaped… it means most people are expected to live PAST 80 to account for those who died extremely young… for every infant mortality two people are expected to live to 120, or three people to 106, or four to 100, and so on.

    Personally when I go I want to be able to still be active. If I make it to 80, I want to be the guy getting up off the couch under his own power, and not just to move into a wheel chair, or rascal. (don’t get me wrong, if I find myself in a wheel chair I’ll survive, but likely by having wheel chair races)
    Don’t tell me that standing at my desk will add years to my life… tell me that standing at my desk means that I’ll be able to walk comfortably until I’m 100 years old… tell me that if I stand at my desk I’ll be more likely to die outside of a hospital bed doing something fun…
    Of course maybe this will all change as I age… but right now they way I see it.

  • Kassie

    The problem with standing desks is that when you stand, at least where I work, everyone can see your screens and see if you are on NewsCut posting comments.

  • John

    One of your most well written articles, Bob.

    I probably spend about half my day sitting and half standing. I work in a lab, and I do a lot of writing, so there you have it.

    I wonder how much time waiting tables or working as a cashier adds to your life. I have done those sorts of jobs as well, and my body hurt at the end of the day. Even with a back mat to stand on. So, you can stand if you want, but for me I’ll keep splitting it up between the two. It seems to work well for me, and even at the ripe young age I am, I don’t really want to live forever, though the age where I want it to end has yet to be determined.