The people who never sit down

Sitting has been called the new smoking, but how is standing at work affecting both our health and our ability to succeed?

Three years ago I walked into a job interview and was thrown. No desks and no chairs, just an empty room. Two men in neat suits and plummy accents started to tell me that they only had standing meeting rooms to conduct interviews in. This wasn’t some cool start up, but the office of one of the largest newspapers in the UK. It seems more people than ever before are waking up the potentially damaging impact on health sitting down for more than eight hours a day may have.

A survey conducted by Plantronics found that seven in ten workers think sitting at their desk all day is having a detrimental effect on their physical or emotional health. Almost three quarters only get up from their seat to go to the toilet or have a cup of tea, while 42 per cent of workers admit they eat lunch at their desk. Apparently those who spend time sitting at their desks all day are more likely to get lung and breast cancer. It’s in our interests to consider alternatives to sitting down all day.

The average UK worker spends over five hours a day just sitting - and that’s only in the office. Factor evenings spent in front of the TV and you have a fertile petri dish for type 2 diabetes. None of these stats make for easy reading for the majority of the UK’s desk bound office workers.

However, introducing standing meeting rooms or walking meetings or conferences could help. As well as improving health, standing up meetings could also improve efficiency in the workplace. A 1999 research paper found that sitting down meetings lasted 34 per cent longer than standing up ones. Those involved in the meeting reportedly felt more alert after standing up than they did sitting down. 

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Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of virtual assistant platform Time Etc, comments: “We’ve experimented with standing desks and honestly, they weren't that popular. But one thing the whole team agrees on is that standing meetings are brilliantly effective. We've found that just by standing up we can compress a meeting into half the time. If you don't sit down and get comfortable, no one feels the need to extend the meeting time to make it 'worth it'."

Having standing desks or meetings can really help to keep the pounds off too. In 2013 a study found that standing up burns 50 calories more on average than sitting so even if standing feels laughable at times, you really are helping your body by incorporating it into your day-to-day routine.

So how can we combat sedentary life?

Faya from the healthy lifestyle blog Fitness on Toast, says she understands just how challenging it can be to take a break from busy work schedules and sitting at your desk, but it’s really important to move around.  “A quick walk around the office or some light stretching of your back, arms or legs, all while on a call, can help make you feel more active and energised both mentally and physically. I’m glad to be working with Plantronics on this project. It’s really easy to weave in some exercises into your everyday life at the office and the growth of wireless technology helps you to do this.”

Speaking into headphones means there’s no reason to spend any more time that you need when taking calls: pacing around the office is perfectly possible so you can keep on top of work and keep fit at the same time.

James Hyde, managing director and cofounder of James and James eCommerce Fulfillment, explains how all work desks in his office are sit/stand combination, as standing up for a long period of time is actually quite hard. “However, it makes people more focused as it prevents people from getting comfortable in their chair and switching off. For meetings with suppliers we’ve found it can cut meeting times from an hour to under 20 minutes though it can freak some people out if they arrive and aren’t expecting to stand up.”

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Chieu Cao, CMO and co-founder at Perkbox, uses stand up desks to encourage movement and interaction. “While much of the evidence in favour of their increasing engagement and productivity is anecdotal, the science that warns us against sitting for long periods is clear. We aren't sedentary creatures – we evolved to move. Health guidelines say we should spend 150 minutes a week in moderate exercise – a challenging feat for most of us who spend six hours a day sitting down, and another seven sleeping at night.

With this in mind, the logic behind stand-up desks is simple: spending more time standing up and moving your lower body engages more muscles, burns more calories, promotes better posture, increases blood flow to your extremities and thus improves alertness.”

Ian Brough, managing director of Building Interiors which fits standing desks, has seen a recent growth in demand. “We recently completed a project for a client where we installed 30 electric sit/stand desks. The client explained that it has made collaboration much easier, and staff are feeling less tired. They plan to get evidence of this and will be introducing a survey after a period of time to accurately measure the impact.

He explains that the concept is simple. Electronic desks are normal desks with an electric motor in the leg frames, which allows the user to raise or lower the desk height. “We’ve also found it is great for individuals of different heights. The standard desk height is 720mm, which can be too high for some - the electric desks go down to 680mm. This adjustable height ensure desk heights are safe and comfortable for each individual.”

Read: Five minute mindfulness fixes to practise at your desk

Andrew Hilton is a consultant spinal surgeon at Winterborne Hospital in Dorset. He is in favour of people standing and walking more at work, and explains how workplaces could save money by encouraging people to stand or walk around. “In the UK alone, 34 million work days were lost due to musculoskeletal problems, in particular back and neck pain. By holding standing and walking meetings back muscles would be strengthened which could lead to less muscular-related injuries. In theory this could increase productivity by reducing the number of sick days taken.”

So how to get started in the office? Encourage colleagues to chat over a making a cup of tea in the kitchen, or en route to the canteen. Unless you need a powerpoint you’ll be able to conduct short work in progress catch ups without needing to book out a meeting room. For longer meetings, consider starting small and selecting one room from which to remove the chairs and tables.

Ultimately, those who felt that standing desks would reduce productivity were proven wrong. Nigel Davies, founder of digital workplace Claromentis says: “I am a convert. I suffer from lower back pain and my physio strongly suggested I try to work on my posture as my job is desk bound. It took months of persevering but now I stand up to work all the time. My initial worry - an inability to concentrate - was completely wrong and in fact I feel more energised and productive when I stand.” 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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