There’s a button under Jeff Schwarz’s desk that he can push if someone absolutely has to have a sit-down meeting in his office.
He taps the button, his desktop lowers and he pulls his chair from its spot in the corner. But it doesn’t happen often.
Usually, the chief operating officer at the Polsinelli law firm in Kansas City spends his work days on his feet, standing at his desk.
“This works for me,” Schwarz said. “I think better standing. I like walking when I talk, so I always use a headset on the phone. It’s not a calorie perspective. It’s a feel-better thing.”
Across American offices, workers like Schwarz are dumping their sit-down desk chairs in favor of standing desks, treadmill desks and big exercise, or stability, balls. Researchers say the small but growing trend is a very good thing.
Regardless of body type, fitness level or overall state of health, it’s hard on human health to sit all day, repeated studies indicate.
A human nutrition professor at Kansas State University recently used data from a long-term health study of Australian men to show a strong correlation between longer daily hours spent sitting and more chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer.
The more people sat, the greater their health risks, according to Richard Rosenkranz’s study.
Another study found a link between colon cancer and long periods of sitting.
The link is relevant to more than just couch potatoes. Desk-bound office workers, truck drivers and others who sit for many of their waking hours need to move around more, experts say.
Nikki Raedeke, director of the dietetics program in the College of Human Environmental Sciences at the University of Missouri, takes the advice to heart. As of Thursday, she’d walked 563 miles this year — all while working at her treadmill desk on campus.
“Oh, my gosh. I love my desk,” Raedeke gushed. “I was never a fan of working out on treadmills. Too boring. But I’m doing the work I’d normally do, and it’s just great to move while I work.”
Her old desk chair now functions as a storage shelf.
Raedeke and about a half-dozen faculty colleagues began using treadmill desks so that “we practice what we preach,” said Steve Ball, an associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology. “It shows we care about the value of activity.”
Treadmill desks generally run no faster than two miles an hour, a gentle pace for most people. For fit people, it’s not much of an aerobic activity. They simply see walking as better than just standing and standing better than sitting.
A report published earlier this year in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that death was more likely to occur — for any reason — among the population group that sat the most on a daily basis. It concluded that “prolonged sitting is a risk factor for all-cause mortality.”
Study authors urged public attention, noting: “The potential public health gains are substantial, because in the United States, less than half the adult population meets the physical activity recommendations. ... Shorter sitting times and sufficient physical activity are independently protective against all-cause mortality, not just for healthy individuals, but also for those with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, overweight, or obesity.”
As an employment law attorney at Ogletree Deakins in Kansas City, Trina Le Riche sees a legal reason for workplaces to be receptive to different desk and chair options.
Under federal law, employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” for persons with disabilities. An employee with a back injury, for example, might well request accommodation with a stand-up desk if sitting for long periods makes it impossible to carry out the essential functions of the job.
Le Riche herself gravitated to a standing desk in the summer of 2012 after first trying to work while sitting on an exercise ball.
“What works for me is about half and half, standing and sitting,” Le Riche said. “But on the days I stand more, I feel like I have more energy at the end of the day.”
That’s a message that Matt Condon wants to spread. As chief executive of ARC, the Athletic and Rehabilitation Center, Condon pays close attention to health and the costs of dealing with injury and disease.
“We’ve become such a sedentary population,” Condon said. “Changing has to be a cultural thing, and it has to start from the top. If you want to change an organization, start in the CEO’s office.”
If the boss can’t afford a treadmill desk at a cost of several thousand dollars, start with an exercise ball as an occasional option, he suggested. It sets the tone for the staff to do something.
“People who do that are more likely to think about their own health and practice wellness,” Condon said. “It becomes ingrained.”
Sharon Keck, director of risk and records at Polsinelli, agrees. She sits on an exercise ball at her desk and has found that she pays more attention to posture when she sits in a regular chair.
“It helps my back. I don’t slouch. I like how it’s made me think,” Keck said.
Another Kansas City lawyer, Paul Seyferth, also splits time between a standing desk and a regular-height conference table in his office.
“For me, it’s more of a psychological benefit than a physical benefit,” Seyferth said. “I made the change after I’d looked at some science that said you actually think better when you’re standing up. I don’t know if it’s made me more creative, but it got me off my duff.”
Standing and, especially, slowly walking while at one’s desk, can pay weight-loss dividends over the long term. But exact effects vary greatly depending on a person’s sex, weight and time spent.
One sample suggests that a 150-pound person might use less than 100 calories an hour sitting at a desk compared to 150 calories an hour standing or 170 calories slowly walking. The difference may not look like much, but if four hours a day are spent standing instead of sitting, that can add up to 200 more calories burned a day.
Ball, the MU exercise and nutrition professor, said workers don’t need “a Cadillac-model” treadmill desk to get health benefits.
“You can just get up and move,” he recommended. “Take activity breaks. Walk for five minutes an hour. Park further away. And don’t use lack of time as an excuse to not exercise. Most Americans watch several hours of TV a day. They have time.”
At the Innovation Cafe, a location in downtown Kansas City where freelancers and entrepreneurs buy memberships in a “collaborative office arrangement,” options include working in an area with exercise balls.
“People use them all the time,” said Innovation Cafe co-owner Jason Teeman. “They’re probably used more than the chairs in the cafe area. But now that you mention stand-up desks, I’m going to look into that. We actually have a perfect place for it.”
And so the trend spreads.