War on chairs (and on the causes of chairs)

· by Steve · Read in about 5 min · (1053 Words)

It’s been a whole week since I discarded my office chair and switched to a stand-up desk so, I’m guessing some of you are wondering how it’s gone.

Well, let’s start with the difficulties. Standing up for 8+ hours a day is tough on the feet, or at least on feet that have gotten used to taking it easy for most of the day - even with the odd break I’ve found my feet are extremely painful by the evening (those who work in retail are no doubt rolling their eyes by now and calling me a wuss).  Also, certain muscles (some in the back, some in the backs of the legs etc) that are not usually used for such long periods of time can get a bit tired after a whole week of doing it. At first, this made me think standing up was hurting my back, but it was really just a muscle fatigue issue and nothing like the back pain I get from my recurring problems. I’m sure my feet and muscles will toughen up with time though, once I become more accustomed to it. Obviously my Capisco will allow me to perch & rest for short periods at the right height once it arrives, but maybe it’s good that I’m having to take the tougher route initially.

So how about the benefits? So far, I’m really positive about this set-up. My back has been so much better this week; it’s felt much more stable and flexible, and first thing in the morning I’ve been less stiff. I feel much more energised too - standing up definitely improves my concentration and alertness, as well as not being so distracted by back pain, and having to get up to stretch all the time etc. In short, so far it’s fantastic, despite the sore feet, hamstrings and other muscles. I’m hoping this isn’t some kind of placebo effect and that long term, this is the way forward.

Based on what I’ve read though, it seems to make sense. Sitting down for long periods is said to have many detrimental effects on your body:

  1. It puts anywhere up to 70% more strain on your back than standing or squatting, which are the 2 natural positions the human spine was actually designed for
  2. It restricts the bloodflow to the legs, which as well as the DVT risks can make you more lethargic
  3. It encourages sedentary behaviour - this is bad anytime, but in the case of backs it encourages dehydration of the disc walls, which can lead to stiff spinal segments (which can lead to instability)

Conversely, while working standing I’ve noticed these benefits:

  1. Motion is built-in to your day - when you’re sitting down, you’re inclined not to move about much because it’s inconvenient to do so (beyond swiveling the chair). You generally need to have a reason to get up, and when you do so, the fact that your work can’t be done until you sit down again encourages you to minimise this time so you can get back to sitting down again to work. And for me with my back, each transition would involve stretching a bit when getting up, and spending some time getting settled comfortably back in the chair again. Having everything at a standing height completely eliminates this problem.
  2. Seamless transitions - stepping away from the desk and back again incurs no ‘overhead’, in terms of needing to get out of the chair, get settled again afterward etc. Maybe it’s just a mental thing, but I found that when getting out of my chair, my ‘flow’ would often be interrupted, and I’d have to regain it when I got back again. This would discourage me from taking breaks, as well as penalising me (productivity-wise) when I did take them. Somehow, being in a standing position already seems to get rid of that, and I can happily walk away from the machine for a few minutes, come back to fix a build issue, wander away again to the bookshelf etc and never feel like my chain of thought is being interrupted. It’s like my day is altogether more fluid than it was before.
  3. My ‘core stability’ muscles are being engaged pretty much all day to keep me upright, in varying configurations as I shift positions. For me, this seems much like doing mild exercise all day for the most important muscles when it comes to back trouble, which I’m sure has led to my back feeling less ‘fragile’. Usually I do specific exercises designed to stretch & strengthen these muscles without straining my back (which I’m still doing), but it appears simply standing around for a long time achieves much the same thing.
  4. My concentration is much better. I’m sure this is down to a lot of factors - less pain (which is always distracting, even when you’ve learned to live with it in the background most of the time), better blood-flow, more actively maintained posture etc. Whatever blend of things it is, I’ve felt more productive and positive in the last week than I have at any time in the last 3 months.
  5. I seem to need to drink a lot more water than usual, which is a good sign, since as noted many back problems result from a dehydration of your spinal discs (caused by compression and lack of activity over a long period). That probably helps concentration too.

So, while I’m nursing sore feet and muscles, I’m feeling good about this experiment, and hopeful that it might lead to a magical situation where I can both spend time at a computer and keep my back healthy. That’s nirvana for me, especially after a rocky few months. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I wish I knew 10 years ago what I know now, that no matter how expensive your chair, sitting in it for 10-12+ hours a day is very likely to screw your back up eventually. In my experience obsessing over the ergonomic aspects of your sitting position does no more than delay the problem (I’ve certainly done loads of adjustments over the last 5 years, and only succeeded in slowing the degeneration), and the only real answer is to eliminate the sitting position altogether. We apes just weren’t engineered to sit in chairs! 😀