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More Employees Trading Chairs for Fit-Friendly Desks

In the past decade, a growing body of research has focused upon the cost of sedentary lifestyles and health outcomes rising from long hours spent sitting at work. More and more employees are considering alternatives to traditional desks.

by Emory University
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It's not often that you'll find Jennifer Wheelock sitting down on the job.

In fact, wander into the office of Emory University's executive director of development communications, and chances are she'll be standing. All day. Every day.

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It's been that way for a few years now, since Wheelock — an avid fitness buff and distance runner who underwent back surgery — asked her manager about the possibility of transitioning to a standing desk, among a variety of alternative workstations steadily gaining popularity on the Emory campus.

"I blew a disc, basically, and had to have it removed," she explains. "As a result, it was very painful to sit for long."

To visitors, Wheelock's workspace appears airy and spare. Her computer monitor rests atop a table that resembles a tall, leggy coffee bar. But the desktop raises and lowers at the flip of a switch.

These days, Wheelock prefers to stand at her desk, a habit that has carried outside of work, as well. An artist who specializes in acrylics and pet portraiture, she now stands at an easel when she paints.

"My back hurts less, I have more energy and don't feel sleepy in the afternoon," she says. "And more and more, research is finding that it's better for you."

The high cost of sitting

In the past decade, a growing body of research has focused upon the cost of sedentary lifestyles and health outcomes rising from long hours spent sitting at work.

But few captured headlines quite like a 2010 study by the American Cancer Society, led by Emory graduate Alpa Patel. The research compared the mortality rates of 123,000 middle-aged adults, including those who spent six hours a day or more sitting and those who limited daily sitting to three hours or less.

The findings were jarring: the more time adults spent sitting, the higher their mortality risk, regardless of other activity levels. Women who sat for more than six hours a day faced a nearly 40 percent higher death rate; for men, the death rate was 20 percent higher.

Prolonged sitting not only contributed to weight gain, but also led to metabolic consequences tied to chronic health issues, including cardiovascular disease.

But long before researchers were probing the impact of prolonged sitting, deskbound Emory employees in computer-intensive positions were considering alternatives.

Emory University
Standing desks like Jennifer Wheelock's are among a variety of alternative workstations gaining popularity with Emory employees. Photo courtesy of Emory University  

Today, it's not uncommon to find Emory office workers sitting upon exercise balls, standing to edit materials or take phone calls, or improvising their own alternative workstations — DIY instructions abound on the Internet.

Ginger Kane, who directs business applications for Emory's development and alumni relations office, considers her own standing workstation "a desk miracle." Stress headaches and shoulder pain led her to experiment, raising her computer monitor at first using "old toner and printer boxes," she recalls.

When her office relocated, Kane had a chance to choose an adjustable standing workstation and felt an improvement. "It's nice to have the option," she says. "Often, my standing desk becomes a meeting space. If there are just a few of us, we'll all stand around the computer screen."

Behold, the walking desk

In 2008, Seth Tepfer, who directs administrative computing and innovative technologies at Emory's Oxford College, had been reading about "treadmill desks" — workstations placed over treadmills that allow employees to walk while they return phone calls and answer email.

Tepfer liked the idea, but at the time, "walking desks" were expensive; popular models cost around $6,000. So Tepfer brought in a friend's treadmill and built a wooden shelf for his computer; Oxford's maintenance staff helped fine-tune the design.

Emory University
Nathan DeJong's treadmill desk was inspired by a colleague. Photo credit: Kim Urquhart  

"It suits my needs," says Tepfer. "At first, there's a fear factor: 'Oh, I can't work, write and walk at the same time.' But once people try it, they realize it's quite possible."

For Tepfer, the arrangement gives him physical alternatives. Many days, he'll walk. When computer work requires a delicate hand, he'll stop, pull a stool onto the treadmill and sit or simply stand.

While at work, Tepfer strolls about 1.5 mph, "just a moderate walking place." Co-workers have told him that placing a mat beneath the machine has helped buffer noise. And though he paid for it himself, Oxford College provides treadmill tune-ups from a firm that also maintains the college's gym equipment.

"I think it improves your productivity," he says. "I know I'm a lot more alert when I'm walking. And I certainly feel better. The human body was not designed to sit in one place for eight hours a day. Your body loves to move — it's what it was made to do."

Tepfer frequently invites visitors to try his treadmill. In fact, he's made a convert of Oxford College applications developer Nathan DeJong, who now works at his own treadmill desk in a nearby office.

The only drawback? DeJong has already worn out a pair of walking shoes.

Getting started

At Emory, there is no sweeping policy governing alternative workstations, according to the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) —typically, needs are addressed by individual departments and managers.

Employees who are interested in changes in their workstations should first talk to a supervisor and then consider signing up for an FSAP ergonomic evaluation, suggests Kathy Norris, a physical therapist who provides ergonomic assessments for work-related injuries for Emory Healthcare.

For a fee, FSAP staff will meet with individuals, discuss job duties, observe work patterns, assess posture and desk configurations, note risk factors, and make recommendations, says Dawn McMillian, a FSAP wellness specialist who conducts ergonomic assessments.

"I think the reason alternative workstations are gaining interest is because people are spending longer hours at their desks and less time moving," McMillian says. "People are looking for ways to incorporate more movement into their daily lives."

While the body does crave movement, McMillian says alternative workstations are not the right solution for everyone. Even with standing stations, good posture and ergonomic basics remain critical. Those improvising their own workstations should ensure the outcome "doesn't force them into odd body positions."

Norris urges employees to try alternative workstations before they invest. For some, prolonged standing may lead to foot or knee problems. Varying workplace activities, proper chair adjustments, correct posture, keeping key work tools within easy reach, taking breaks and ergonomic stretches can also bring relief, she added.

"People need to own their workspace, make adjustments and do what they can to make it the best for them," Norris says. "If you're on the phone for long periods, use a headset. Conference calls? Use a speaker function."

The best place to start? "Talk to your supervisor, let them know you have issues," she says. "Be a team, keep an eye on each other and don't be afraid to seek out resources."