This column is a little overdue because it took me longer than anticipated to get those pesky RFID chips (mentioned last column) out of my distal colon. But that’s all behind me (!) now and it’s time to move on and talk about moving in general and treadmill desks in particular.
One day a few months ago I was sitting at my desk at the office when I was seized by an uncontrollable urge to start standing up all day. This wasn’t a random obsession like some other random obsessions I’ve had, but was actually driven by my having just read a book by Dr. James Levine MD PhD entitled: Get Up! Why your chair is killing you and what you can do about it.
Just so we’re clear on this, I need to point out that Dr. Levine is not part of some nefarious plot by agents of The Department of Trying to Put IKEA Out of Business. But he is an endocrinologist and an obesity researcher and Director of the Mayo Clinic/Arizona State University Solutions Initiative. One of the key messages in Dr. Levine’s book is basically that humans weren’t meant to sit down all day, and regular workouts can’t compensate for the amount of time we spend in our chairs.
Now I’ve noticed that there have been some weird sayings going around lately including “Orange is the New Black”, “Trading Insults is the New Form of Political Debate” and “Stuffed Burrowing Owls are the New Furbies”. Maybe I made some of that up, but I didn’t make up the fact that Dr. Levine is also noted for coining the phrase “Sitting is the New Smoking.”
The rationale for why sitting is bad for you revolves around explaining why standing is good for you. When you are standing up, the large muscles in your legs are more active (unless you are duct-taped to a tree or lamp-post) and will draw more glucose (sugar) out of your blood. Standing also increases your basal metabolic rate. Conversely, when you are sitting around all the time, your basal metabolic rate is lower, it’s more difficult for your body to clear glucose out of your blood, and you have to produce more insulin to compensate. Over-production of insulin can lead to things like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Disposing of glucose simply by standing is called NEAT or Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, and not that it matters, but NEAT can easily be rearranged to ETNA, meaning maybe your insurance premium will go down next year but don’t bet on it. (I shamelessly borrowed here from Dave Barry’s lexicon of literary devices which include rearranging normal acronyms to make funnier, or at least more interesting ones, and I also state for the record, that Dave Barry can be rearranged to spell “Braver Day”.)
Anyway, more NEAT means your pancreas doesn’t have to make as much insulin, and the insulin you do make will work better. This will reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, but the jury is still out regarding its effect on other degenerative conditions such as birdwatching and re-selling stuff you bought at garage sales on ebay.
Long story short, standing at least intermittently throughout the day is much better for you than sitting for 8 hours straight, so I started standing at work a few months ago. I’m in pretty good shape, but I have to admit that for the first week, I came home every night completely bagged, and had to compensate by binge-watching all of House of Cards Season III. I also got low-grade sniffles and was constantly fighting the urge to go outside and nibble grass for some reason.
Fortunately that all passed, and then about two months ago I was seized by another uncontrollable urge which involved converting my desk into a treadmill desk. (A treadmill desk is exactly like an ordinary desk, except it is higher and has a treadmill under it.) Levine says walking slowly on a treadmill is a great way to increase NEAT.
He is widely credited as the inventor of treadmill desks, but that distinction likely should belong to Nathan Edelson, who patented a design for a portable desk intended to be used with a treadmill back in 1993. Dr. Levine does get credit though, for helping to popularize working while walking on a treadmill via Get UP!, and also via his other book: These Boots are Made for Walking: Why Newton’s First Law of Motion Doesn’t Apply to You or Nancy Sinatra.
Either way, I was just so busy watching House of Cards and fighting the urge to nibble grass that I sort of forgot about the whole treadmill thing for awhile, but eventually I finished House of Cards, bought a used treadmill for $400, stripped it down to just the deck, slid it under my desk, built a platform for my phone, computer, stuffed Burrowing Owl, etc, and off I went. Levine is quoted here cautioning the neophyte treadmilling office worker, saying: “There’s a tendency to want to jump on the treadmill and walk for hours and hours a day. Don’t do that. Certainly, at the absolute maximum, do half-hour on, half an hour off, for two to three hours a day.” He also suggests a speed of 0.5 to1.5 mph.
So naturally, being the possessor of multiple Y chromosomes, I began walking for 8 hours straight, on Day One, which happened to be a Monday, and by Thursday afternoon I was happily clocking along at 2.5 mph and by Friday afternoon, I had acute pain and tenderness in my lateral left lower extremity, six inches above the ankle, and could barely walk.
But several weeks later, after I got off the crutches, I was back at it and settled into a steady 1.5 mph, still fighting the urge to nibble grass and stopping only to go to the bathroom. Typing and mousing took awhile to master, and it took a few weeks for my feet to adapt, despite good footwear.
Here I am a few months later. My FitBit keeps flashing the “Full” symbol, but I’m a few pounds lighter and my belt is several notches tighter. Tracy, one of the two people I share my office with, goes around with a hunted look in her eyes most of the time, and has taken to muttering and wearing earplugs. Martin, my other office-mate, is pretty blasé about the whole thing. He thinks that the electrically-grounded, foil-lined skullcap I’m wearing (to prevent static buildup) is a bit weird, but otherwise he’s cool with the incessant low-grade droning of the treadmill.
Levine was certainly right about the thermogenesis bit. I had to install a couple of fans to train on my head and torso, once summer arrived. I haven’t checked any of my metabolic parameters since I started, but one of these days I will. I just have to amble on over to the nearest blood drawing station for our local lab. It’s 14.3 miles one way, but somehow I think I’m up to the walk.