Stand Up and Get Fit

Last week I caught a Fresh Air interview with New York Times columnist, Gretchen Reynolds, author of The First 20 Minutes. One of her science-based claims that caught my attention was the importance of standing regularly to break up periods of sitting. It is the kind of key recommendation that we can offer to all of our office-bound massage customers because it takes so little effort and has such big rewards.

Reynolds recommends standing for two minutes every 20 minutes while desk-bound even if you can’t move around your office. “If you can stand up every 20 minutes — even if you do nothing else — you change how your body responds physiologically.”

The basic problem with sitting for extended periods is that sitting makes it harder to get moving and our bodies are made to move. If you can stand up every 20-minutes the big leg muscles start contracting and releasing enzymes that break up fat in the bloodstream reducing the amount of fat in your heart, liver and brain and decreasing the chance of diabetes, heart disease while improving energy, mood, brain function, memory. If you can walk even a little bit, the benefits multiply.

My rational mind just loves having my personal behavior validated.

Split keyboard

Since I spend a large part of many days sitting in front of a computer, like I am right now, I worry about repetitive strain injury. In fact, during one intense desk-bound work period about a decade ago, I did begin to develop symptoms in my wrists, forearms and elbows. I managed those symptoms by switching to a split keyboard, which allows the wrists to be at a more natural angle to the forearms, and by learning to mouse with my left hand as well as my right.

About two years ago, I added a new routine to my workday. On the desk next to my keyboard is a timer that chimes once every 25 minutes and then again five-minutes later. During that five-minute interval the rule is, I have to be standing and away from my desk.

I used to be one of those people who could focus intensely for hours at a time without taking a break. Many times I didn’t want to take a break fearing that it would break my concentration or make me lose my train of thought. No longer.

While I started taking five-minute stand-up breaks for ergonomic reasons, it turns out to have multiple unintended benefits.

  • The break actually improves the quality of my work. Moving my whole body by standing up activates more parts of my brain. Recent research detailed in Jonah Lehrer’s recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, talks about the importance of distraction in the creative process.
  • I get more chores done. It is amazing how many things you can check off the To Do list with a focused five minutes: feed the birds, clean the toilet/sink, do some dishes, vacuum a room, get some rice cooking, load the washing machine, make a quick phone call. Did I mention I work at home?
  • I get more focused exercise. Ten push-ups, pull-ups, squats, etc. along with rehab work for the knees, shoulders, elbows or wherever I happen to have a current issue needing attention.
  • I get to take a breath. Studies have shown that when we get excited or anxious, like working under deadline or on an idea we think has potential (me, most of the time), we unconsciously slow down our breathing or hold our breath. Something to do with not wanting the tigers nearby to eat us. Not good.
  • I get to see what’s up with my neighbors. One of the exercises I do during that five-minute break is look out the window and refocus my eyes for distant vision. Staring at a computer screen all day is a great prescription for eyestrain.

Since I live in San Francisco, I already have customers who work at adjustable-height desks that allow them to work standing or sitting. Your massage customers who are cubical dwellers will find their own ways to fill their stand-up time. Our job is just to let them know that it is important.

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5 Responses to Stand Up and Get Fit

  1. ken bridgeman says:

    Interesting science-based ideas. One of my clients at a dot-com with whom I worked many years ago had his own strategy. He set a times on his computer for every 20 minutes, stood up and walked around his chair or his desk and then sat down to continue his work. He maintained that it didn’t break his concentration on the task at hand, but the movement and renewed circulation that he got from this actually stimulated his thoughts and often let him tackle the task in new ways.

  2. Harris Fishkin says:

    David, thanks for this great reminder to breathe and move around – so necessary.

  3. Rick Beck says:

    One of my co-workers rigged a system allowing him to stand while working at his computer. He’s noticed a big difference in stammina. The nature of my work (social work) and myself impells me to get up and move about. Great article.

  4. Irene Smith says:

    Thanks David. A very practical and informative article; simple and profound. I try, and maybe with this reminder Ill make getting out of the chair a priority. Sitting is absolutely my greatest physical stress.

  5. Thank you for making the connection to the research and for your simple solution. We have many clients that sit all day and we are frequently recommending movement. Now we can add another “Why” it’s important to the recommendation.

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