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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

Can standing desks solve the problems of sedentary lifestyles?

We try the Quickstand Eco to find out whether the pros outweigh the cons 

The Quickstand Eco standing desk is made from sustainable materials and features no formaldehyde or PVC. Courtesy Humanscale
The Quickstand Eco standing desk is made from sustainable materials and features no formaldehyde or PVC. Courtesy Humanscale

I am writing this standing up. Which, for someone who has spent the best part of their career planted firmly on their posterior, is altogether novel.

Presented as an antidote to our increasingly sedentary ­lifestyles, the standing desk has grown in popularity in recent years. As most of us are now aware, sitting is the new smoking. There’s an ever-growing body of research that proves that extended periods of immobility – whether in the office staring at a computer, behind the wheel on a lengthy commute, or at home watching Netflix – can contribute to everything from poor metabolic health to increased risk of heart disease.

The dangers of being sedentary too long

A report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last year found a direct correlation between the amount of time spent sitting and the risk of early mortality. The study, based on nearly 8,000 adults, found that participants’ risk of death grew in tandem with total sitting time – no matter their age, sex, race, body mass index or exercise habits. Lengthy bouts of uninterrupted sitting have been found to cause the most damage; people who sat for less than 30 minutes at a time had the lowest risk of early death.

A more recent study published in the Plos One journal suggests that the damage may not just be physical, linking extended periods of sitting to memory loss and cognitive decline. “A detailed projection of the effect of risk factors on Alzheimer’s disease prevalence suggests that ­approximately 13 per cent of AD cases ­worldwide may be ­attributable to sedentary behaviour,” says the report. In addition, “it has been suggested that sedentary behaviour may have deleterious effects on glycemic control, and the increased glycemic variability and ­resultant decreased cerebral blood flow may lead to worse brain health”.

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The problem is that you can be relatively active, but still sedentary for most of the day, and no amount of gym time can totally counteract the effects of sitting in one place for eight to 10 hours at a time.

“The truth is our bodies are designed to move for the full 16 hours of the day. At one point in time, we would have had to run, climb and fight just to eat. Humans are not designed to have their meals put in front of them on a plate. We were not designed to be sessile organisms, and many injuries we are starting to see have come as a result of being more sedentary than we were designed to be,” says Grace Van Beusekom, country manager, Middle East & North Africa, at Humanscale.

Giving a standing desk a try

Which was reason enough for me to try out Humanscale’s new Quickstand Eco – a product that can be placed on your existing desk and allows you to easily switch between a sitting and standing position. My Quickstand Eco is delivered straight to the office and set up within a matter of minutes. It has a minimal footprint, so it doesn’t overwhelm my already limited desk space. It essentially consists of a sturdy base and an adjustable work surface that is attached to your computer, and can easily be pushed upwards and downwards.

Sit-stand products are not new, but in the past, they have often been large and unwieldy, and difficult to switch from one mode to the other. The Quickstand has removed all of these barriers. And, as an added benefit, the product is made with sustainable materials, with no formaldehyde or PVC included. It is the epitome of simplicity.

The Quickstand Eco retails at Dh2,600. Courtesy Humanscale
The Quickstand Eco retails at Dh2,600. Courtesy Humanscale

Getting used to standing and working is also easier than expected – although there are days when it does feel like effort. I also find that when I really need to concentrate, I immediate regress into seated mode. But the act of standing makes me much more aware of my posture and makes me actively think about things like extending my spine, keeping my shoulders back and ­engaging my core. The Quickstand Eco retails at Dh2,600, which does initially sound expensive – but after a few weeks in its company, I’m tempted to invest.

There is, however, some lost productivity as countless colleagues wander over to tell me how ridiculous I look. To be fair, we work in an entirely open-plan newsroom so, as the only person standing, I do look like the conductor of an orchestra – or a DJ playing to an entirely disinterested crowd. I do, initially, feel quite exposed, and in the first few days, my body feels a little achy by the end of the day.

“Standing desks are excellent,” says James Heagney, founder and head coach of D5 Executive Gym in DIFC. “But you have to work up to it. If you try standing up for the whole time, it’s not good for you. It’s too much. When you go to exercise, you don’t put 100kg on your back and start squatting straight away. You need to build up to it. You should start really small – even if it’s just 30 minutes a day.”

The final results

One word of warning. Those hoping that this will result in dramatic weight loss (ie me), will be disappointed. ­According to research, the difference in calories burnt while sitting and standing at work is actually negligible. ­Basically, do not expect your standing desk to be a cure-all. You still need to introduce movement breaks into your day – aim for five minutes of movement for every 30 ­minutes spent sitting. Or, if you are feeling particularly courageous and have lots of space, you can invest in a treadmill desk.

“University of Pittsburg researchers measured people while sitting and standing – standing only burnt two extra calories on average every 15 minutes, which is about eight to 10 calories extra every hour on your feet. Although standing helps activate muscles in the abdomen, butt and legs, it is not a big enough stimulus to use up energy. What can definitely increase calories burnt is using a treadmill desk,” says Dr Graham Simpson, a ­specialist at Euromed Clinic Centre Dubai and founding member of the American Holistic ­Medical Association.

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Read more:

'Text neck': digital age ailment seen in record numbers in the UAE

7 ways to stay fit and healthy at the office

Back pain: causes, effects and solutions

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“A recent Mayo article found that transcriptionists were just as productive sitting and using a treadmill desk. Those on the treadmill desk expended 100 calories per hour while walking. If you do this three hours a day for five days, that is around 1,500 calories burnt. Over the course of a year, that is 60,000 extra calories or about 16lbs [7.3kg] of fat.”

The treadmill may be one step too far for some. But even if you don’t have a fancy desk at your disposal, there are small changes you can make to try and mitigate some of the damage caused by all that sitting. “Set reminders on your phone every hour, where the word posture will pop up on your phone and that will be a cue to even just take 10 deep breaths, role your ­shoulders back, and reset,” says Heagney.

“Bring your keyboard and everything else back into line; do some deep ­diaphragmatic breathing, in through the nose out through the belly; push your shoulders back and down and activate your shoulder muscles. Those types of things, done consistently throughout the day, will help. Even just standing up for the last five minutes of every hour will help. Just move. Movement is the big cure.”