"The chair and the couch are somewhat akin to an early grave." Dr. Scott Deron, Heart Group of Lancaster General Health cardiologist Simple desk chairs might not seem as menacing as the kind on death row, but health officials say Americans are sitting the By Suzanne Cassidy, Staff Writer email@example.com
Fifteen years ago, Cora Bilger traded her desk chair for an exercise ball -- one of those plastic orbs used in yoga and Pilates classes.
She never could get completely comfortable sitting on a conventional office chair. But she thought that sitting on an exercise ball -- also known as a yoga, balance or stability ball -- might help her to improve her posture.
She believes it has. And it's had another benefit she hadn't anticipated: "I've probably built more of a core without even knowing it."
When you're sitting on an exercise ball, "you have to activate those deep core muscles," she said. "You're gently exercising during the day."
It turns out that Bilger was ahead of her time. Now, as people are beginning to learn about the harmful effects of sitting for long stretches of time -- effects they can't erase by exercising a few hours a week -- they are altering their workstations so they can incorporate activity into their workdays.
Some people are elevating their work surfaces so they can stand at the office. Some are buying pricy treadmill desks, which are treadmills equipped with work surfaces that can accommodate a laptop. And some are swapping their office chairs for exercise balls.
Stability balls are even making their way into the classroom. According to a recent Associated Press story, these balls were first used in classes for students with autism and attention problems, but now are being introduced into mainstream classrooms. "By making the sitter work to stay balanced, the balls force muscle engagement and increased blood flow, leading to more alertness," the AP story explained.
The Wall Street Journal recently threw some cold water on the active workstation trend by highlighting some potential problems: It's difficult to type correctly while using a treadmill desk; treadmill desks can be noisy and carry injury risks; and ergonomics experts are skeptical about the usefulness of stability balls in improving posture.
It's probably too early to know if stability balls and treadmill desks will go the way of the 8-minute abdominal workout and the aerobicized yuppie. The debate rages online about the virtues and drawbacks of the active workstation.
What doesn't seem to be a matter of dispute is this: Sitting for long stretches of time is bad for you. Possibly very, very bad for you.
Dr. Scott Deron, a cardiologist with The Heart Group of Lancaster General Health, put it starkly: "The chair and the couch are somewhat akin to an early grave."
According to the Mayo Clinic website, researchers have linked extended periods of sitting with a number of health problems, including obesity. "Too much sitting also seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer," writes the Mayo Clinic's Dr. James Levine.
Deron said the longest-living people on earth tend to live at high altitudes, and "need to ramble up and down these steep terrains."
The environments in which they live are the "antithesis of our high-tech world," he said.
Many Americans work long hours at desk jobs, and then go home and sit for hours in front of the television. This prolonged sitting leads them to develop fat under the abdominal wall -- visceral fat -- that generates inflammatory cytokines. These "bad players," as Deron calls them, are the basis of many diseases and aging processes.
When a person is physically active, and drops just 10 pounds, this weight loss will initiate a cascade of beneficial health effects: bad cholesterol drops, good cholesterol rises, blood sugar normalizes and levels of inflammation fall, Deron said.
"We're really meant as an organism to move," the cardiologist said. "It's quite clear what happens when we don't."
Many of us are "lulled into that false sense of security that all we need to do is modest activity here and there," Deron said.
Alas, this is not so.
So in addition to regular exercise -- he suggests six hours of cardiovascular exercise a week -- Deron suggests that people incorporate activity into the workday.
He only half-jokingly refers to elevators as "evil." He urges people to take the stairs.
"Change can be introduced in bite-size bits," he said, noting that if you work on the sixth floor, you can start by getting off the elevator on the fourth floor, then walking up the remaining two flights.
He practices what he preaches: He stands during patient consultations and walks whenever he can. While being interviewed on the phone for this story, he was walking around the dining room table in his home.
When you're standing, you're using your gluteal and other muscles, and your metabolic rate increases, so you're burning more calories.
The good news is that just as sedentary time is cumulative, so, too, is the time spent moving. It doesn't matter if you do three 20-minute episodes of activity or one hour, Deron said.
In his view, a more active workforce means a more focused, more productive workforce. "The best way to be engaged is to be … involved -- literally up, as opposed to sitting."
That has been the experience of Greg Drake, senior manager of facilities and purchasing for Isaac's Deli Inc., who began standing at work two years ago to relieve his "major back problems."
Necessity being the mother of invention, he fashioned a standing desk by putting a milk crate on top of his regular desk.
He started standing at work gradually, for an hour or two at first, until he was standing for most of his workday. "My back problems are pretty much gone," Drake said. "It's worked out marvelously for me."
Not only does he feel physically stronger, but he also feels more focused and engaged. When people approach him at his desk, he now talks to them, eye to eye.
Chair of the health and wellness committee at Isaac's, Drake said that if you want to stand, rather than sit at your desk, you may find yourself fielding questions from curious co-workers, and you may need to convince your employer that it's OK.
Ready-made standing desks can be expensive (though there are websites aplenty offering tips on how to turn inexpensive IKEA desks into standing desks).
Drake said he's happy enough with his inexpensive milk crate -- they come in "all kinds of fashionable colors," he quipped -- though he and a colleague have discussed acquiring a treadmill desk that could be shared by employees.
In the meantime, he said, "I continue to encourage people to stand up."
Cora Bilger said she sits on an exercise ball at home, while watching TV, and at work, while working at her desk. "I sit on this thing, off and on, for 10 hours a day," said Bilger, who's a physician assistant based in Lancaster General Health's outpatient pain management department.
The exercise ball requires her to plant her feet on the ground, and to use her hamstrings, quadriceps and gluteal muscles. It also forces her to "sit symmetrically," she said.
She's engaging in active sitting, rather than passive sitting. "You're constantly interacting with your body ... when you're on the exercise ball."
Starting at about $20, an exercise ball is far cheaper than a treadmill desk, which can cost thousands of dollars. "I'm surprised it hasn't taken off more," Bilger said.
At LGH's outpatient pain center, she has started a trend: One of the physicians, and nurse practitioner Kristi Menicheschi, also have swapped their desk chairs for exercise balls.
Menicheschi said that sitting on the stability ball has improved her posture "tremendously," and also has helped her to tighten her core. And, she added, "it's fun. You can bounce on it, too."
Menicheschi said she's encouraged some of her patients with desk jobs to try the exercise ball. "Even if you don't like it, you've not invested a whole lot of money. … I think it's really a win-win."n
Please see SITTING, page E7
Follow the bouncing ball
Tips on how to incorporate an exercise ball into your work routine, Page E7.