work-healthyFive or more hours of sedentary sitting, according to Dr. David Agus, is the health equivalent of smoking a pack and a quarter of cigarettes. Yikes.

Yet, sitting around is something we get plenty of practice at. Reading and writing and creating on a computer makes for big chunks of sedentary time. If you’re reading this post right now, are you sitting down? How long have you been sitting?

It’s a topic that I think of often. We’ve all kind of taken a shining to it on the Buffer team, being more aware of the time we spend in front of the computer, how we take breaks, how we focus on exercise and movement. And we’re not alone. There is tons of interest out there about the healthiest way to survive a sedentary job—from the health recommendations to the tools to the activities.

So what is indeed the healthiest way? And what can you change about your style today to get the biggest benefit?

Here’re some ideas.

The Healthiest Way to Survive a Sedentary Job

Science says:

Stand up every 20 minutes.

Studies have shown that our bodies can benefit from simply standing up, contracting muscles, and moving. Think of standing as pushing a reset button on your body. If you press the reset button before the timer hits 20 minutes, you’ll avoid any of the negative side effects of a sedentary job.

stand up work health

Gretchen Reynolds, a reporter on exercise research for The New York Times, wrote a book condensing health studies down to their most essential parts. One of the key takeaways from her research was this emphasis on standing up and the golden 20-minute mark.

New science shows very persuasively that standing up about every 20 minutes, even for only a minute or two, reduces your risks of developing diabetes and heart disease.

By standing up, you cause the big muscles in your legs and back to contract, which leads to an increase in certain enzymes that break up fat in the blood stream. You don’t have to jog in place or do jumping jacks. Just stand. A very pleasant additional benefit is that standing up every 20 to 30 minutes also seems to prompt the body to burn calories, so you don’t gain as much weight from sitting at the office most of the day.

Even more from Reynolds:

If you can stand up every 20 minutes — even if you do nothing else — you change how your body responds physiologically.

Other studies confirm the benefit of this simple act of standing. For instance, a study of employees at New Balance shoe headquarters showed that performing an activity every 30 minutes—standing, walking, stretching—improved not only health but also engagement and concentration.

So now the question becomes: How do you stand up every 20 minutes?

Start small: Set a timer for 20 minutes

At Buffer, each person on the team is equipped with a Jawbone UP to track our movement, activity levels, and sleep. At the end of every day, we can see how we moved (or didn’t move). For instance, here’s my Thursday.

up band

Those big, flat valleys are exactly the types of inactive stretches it’s best to avoid.

Solution: The UP band lets you set a move reminder that causes your wristband to buzz after a certain amount of inactivity. Bingo! Set it to 20 minutes, and stand up when it buzzes.

Other fitness bands offer similar functionality, too. And if you’d prefer to keep things super straightforward, you can go with a trusty phone or kitchen timer to set a manual notification for yourself.

Move to a new area: Workstation popcorn

One of our favorite work hacks on the Buffer team is workstation popcorn.

You start your day with a to-do list, then plan your list around different cafes, coffee shops, and workstations, popping from one to the next once you’ve completed a set of tasks.

Workstation-Popcorn

For instance, you might start the day at the office, spend the late morning at a coffee shop, hit a co-working space in the afternoon, and return to the office conference room to wrap up your day.

Walking in between each work place injects multiple opportunities for movement into your day. Though you won’t be popping from station to station every 20 minutes, you can supplement the 20-minute rule with these popcorn intervals, helping you achieve more consistent movement throughout the day.

Standing desk vs. Sitting: Focus on movement

One variation on the standing theme is that it’s not necessarily about standing up. It’s about moving.

The Cornell Ergonomics lab has the following advice:

Every 20 minutes stand for 2 minutes AND MOVE.

The absolute time isn’t critical but about every 20-30 minutes take a posture break and move for a couple of minutes. … Movement is important to get blood circulation through the muscles. And movement is FREE! Research shows that you don’t need to do vigorous exercise (e.g. jumping jacks) to get the benefits, just walking around is sufficient. So build in a pattern of creating greater movement variety in the workplace

In theory, moving can happen whether you’re standing or not. There are several chair options (see below) that allow for more movement than the traditional office chair. You can rock back and forth and lean side to side, and you’d be getting the muscle exercise you need via these simple movements.

The same goes for those who stand while working. Standing still for long stretches will eventually lead to its own set of health problems (undue pressure on joints, for instance), so you’re better off swaying, rocking, and stretching while you stand.

Stand while you work: How to find the right standing desk

Perhaps the most obvious (and increasingly popular) idea of how to stand and move more at work is to convert your workstation with a standing desk. If you’re curious to try this for yourself, all the best advice is to start small and cheap. And take things slow.

Small and cheap is the best way to start because you don’t want to pay big bucks for something you don’t like and therefore might not enjoy using. High-end standing desks can cost over $1,000. Therefore, it’s best to give a standing workstation a trial before you commit to a steep price tag.

First things first, posture is essential no matter what desk you use. Here’s a helpful graphic from Wired about the appropriate height, distances, and angles for a standing desk.

  • Monitor should be 20-28 inches away from your eyes with the screen at a 20-degree tilt
  • Table height should be at or slightly below elbow height
  • Elbows at a 90-degree angle to the keyboard
  • Eyes looking slightly down to the monitor

Wired magazine stand desk

You’ll notice that this type of setup gets a little difficult with a laptop because the keyboard and screen would be on the same level. If you plan on a standing desk for your laptop, it might be best to invest in a standalone keyboard and mouse so that you can adjust your screen and peripherals to the ideal height.

As for the desk itself …

Start with a fixed-height standing desk

In the spirit of starting small, the fixed-height standing desk should come first. This can be as simple as spending a few days working from a kitchen counter or a coffee bar. Other folks have found creative ways of building a simple setup to try out.

Programmer Marco Arment built a Coke can stand for his monitor and keyboard.

coke can standing workstation

The $22 IKEA desk hack is the brainchild of Colin Nederkoom, CEO of Customer.io. With side tables, shelves, and brackets purchased at IKEA, Nederkoom put together a custom desk for his monitor and keyboard/mouse.

ikea standing workstation computer

Move on to adjustable standing desks

Products like the Varidesk and Kangaroo Pro help convert a standard desk into a standing desk, and they have the adjustable power to set the screen and keyboard at the ideal height.

The advantages of an adjustable desk are likely to be noticed immediately: you can vary the height at which you work when sitting, standing, or moving in between. The hybrid options like the Varidesk and Kangaroo Pro help bridge the gap between non-adjustable desks and the full-on, standalone adjustable desks.

varidesk-single-plus-mid

For the best standalone adjustable desks, I’ll cede the floor to the Wirecutter, which tested a number of desk options and found that the NextDesk Terra was the best standing desk on the market. Starting at more than $1,000, investments into these upper-end desks is not cheap. If you’d like a cheaper option, you might consider something more like Safco’s Muv Stand-up, which starts at $274.

safco standing desk

Move while you sit: Buy an active desk chair

Along with a standing desk, a supplement to moving more while you work is to find an active desk chair that supports constant movement and good posture. Even those who opt for standing at work find that it’s best not to stand all day; a 70:30 split of standing to sitting is often best.

The following chairs can help. These adjustable stools and seats can fit either workstyle—standing or sitting—and they support constant movement throughout the day by being just unstable enough to keep your muscles in motion.

active chairs

Active couch potatoes: How does daily exercise help?

In a study of marathoners, researchers found that participants trained an average of 40 miles per week, which is enough exercise to place them among the most active adults. At the same time, these runners sat idle for nearly 12 hours per day.

Hence the term “active couch potatoes.”

Interestingly, studies have shown that idle sitting (e.g. sedentary work) is an independent predictor of disease, meaning that daily exercise before or after work does not cancel out a day of sitting in front of the computer.

Of course, daily exercise can help in many other ways and an active couch potato is better off than a regular coach potato. Yet it would appear that a chunk of exercise is not enough to counteract the effects of a sedentary job. Consistent, regular movement is best.

Over to you

Which ways have you found to be more active during your work day? 

Have you tried a standing desk or an active chair? What has been your experience with these options?

I’d be eager to hear your take in the comments!

Image credits: Death to the Stock Photo, Sebastian Langer, Yoga.com, Impossible HQ, sparklesidewalk

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Written by Kevan Lee

Content crafter at Buffer. You can find me online, tweeting about my writing process, or at home, second-guessing football coaches. Live simply, give generously, beat cancer.

  • What is your thought on things like http://thefitdesk.com/pedal-desk-v2-0/ ?

    • Hi Kate! From what I read, treadmill desks and bike desks are certainly interesting options albeit a little difficult to work productively and effectively. I think it might depend on what type of work you’re doing at the computer? We typers and coders might have a tough time. That being said, there are a few on our Buffer team who use a treadmill desk and Dr. Agus (the doc mentioned in the intro of this post) uses a treadmill desk at work. :)

      • I tend to do admin work which I seem to be able to do well on the bike desk (though I can understand why this would not work for coders!)

        I wonder if the desk vs. the bike makes a big impact on health?

      • Terry Ford

        I find I can do coding between 1.6 and 2.2 mph on my treadmill desk. Concentrated work between 1.2 and 1.6 can be done for hours on it. Have had the treadmill desk for several years now and like it.

  • There’s an awesome Kickstarter campaign for an adjustable desk called called LIFT:

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/iskelterfactory/lift-the-cure-for-sitting-disease?ref=nav_search

    • Wow, that’s a beautiful setup. How cool! Thanks for sharing, Alex. :) Curious, I’m wondering if there’s an option for a split keyboard/monitor setup? Or is it all on the same table height?

      • It’s all the same height, one surface level. It seems, though, that they met their stretch goal of $60k and are now including a LIFT mini, that seems to have a lower level for a keyboard.

        Paz!

  • Zach

    This was a great article. Definitely getting up and moving is better for you,, and it can align quite nicely with a Pomodoro timer. Queston – how does getting up and moving ever 20 mins affect productivity though?

    • Great question, Zach! I know I’ve got stuck into a writing groove that can last an hour or so. I’d imagine that maybe the quick stand/stretch is something you’d get used to and be able to work into your flow? That’s just my gut feeling on it!

  • I feel like standing up every 20 minutes would make it too hard for me to really get into a task – but I up my Fitbit steps by jogging in place, even though it looks ridiculous. While I’m filling up my drink, washing my hands, or waiting for something in the microwave to finish reheating, I jog in place. Then I go home and do this during commercials as I watch TV.

    • Hi Brittany! Thanks for the comment! I can totally see that a break every 20 minutes might be a bit of a productivity hurdle, especially if you’re dug into a task. I love the ideas for moving more consistently (and upping Fitbit steps) throughout the day! I would sometimes try similar tricks during stoppages of play during football games on TV. :)

  • I agree with +Brittany Berger – I tried setting a timer but found it very distracting when I’m writing. I have a standing desk next to a traditional desk and move between the two throughout the day. I usually have up-tempo music playing so that I’m more inclined to get up / move / dance.

    • Hi Terry! Thanks for the comment! Great tip about up-tempo music! I might have to try that one. :)

  • Alain Papazoglou

    “between” you can use a kneeling chair http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kneeling_chair

    I use this one for more than one year and no more back pain : http://www.amazon.fr/Siege-ergonomique-repose-genoux-Accent-Wood/dp/B003KF8PM2

    • Hi Alain! Great suggestion for a “between” option! I’m so glad this one worked out for you!

  • Such great reminders to get up and move! Sometimes, we get so sucked into what we’re doing, that we don’t even realize we’ve spent the entire day sitting. I can’t be the only one ;)

    Using http://e.ggtimer.com/ is another good way to track your time if you don’t have a Jawbone UP, or a phone that you want to keep restarting alarms.

    Now, I’m off to do tree pose!

  • Great article Kevan, especially thanks for the Ikea Hack! I am going to IKEA this week to get it and set it up at my home. At work I have a gym ball and formerly had a stand-up desk which was great. I will start with the 20minute rule and see how it goes. I use 20 minute rule pause anyway to save my eyes. Every 20 minutes I close them for 30 seconds or just not stare at the monitor. So I will make the pause for 1-2 minutes and stretch myself. As I run a lot (20-40 miles/week) sometimes I feel like I am dying when sitting too much.

  • Great article @kevanlee:disqus! Would love to see a follow-up addressing how this type of work setup affects productivity or even a further breakdown on how you all spend your day at Buffer.

  • I personally found pomodoro to help with changing positions, every 25 minutes I sit down / walk (depending on if I’m working while standing or sitting) for 5 minutes. As for context switching it’s supposedly bad, but in this case my mind gets a chance to run some tests in background to see if I’m missing something and can easily return to it after a break (doesn’t brake a flow like a notification about a new email would)

    • Like Andrew, I’ve been using the Pomodoro method and moving every 25 minutes. It has worked well for me and I like how it forces me to chunk my time into set blocks. I’m curious about the difference between moving at 25 vs. 20 minutes since it seems like 20 is the magic number per the research. Thoughts?

      I also “invested” in the Lift campaign–can’t wait for it to come together. Thanks again for the post–another great one.

      • Now I’m also curious about 25 vs 20..
        Will try to change my pomodoro time next week to 20 and see if I will notice any difference

  • Great post, Kevan, and I like how you branched out a bit from the regular topics you cover … but still going the thoughtful, in-depth coverage route that’s your style. :-) I’ve been wearing a Fitbit for 1.5 years now, and it’s made me more conscious about not just the intentional-exercise steps I get each day (like the 4.5 miles I walked this morning with my neighbor) — but also the activity I do each day. One thing that’s helped me is walking down/up four flights of stairs at work to use the restroom during the workday. And because I drink tons of water (also a good habit to have!), I find myself doing this at least 4-5 times a day. (Sorry if that’s TMI … just keepin’ it real.)

  • Barry Hammond

    Think about adding deep breathing as well. Let’s say every 90 minutes or so, stand and put your arms up and breathe in deeply and exhale slowly in a rhythm for a couple of minutes. It reduces mind clutter and the negativities that lurk in all of us.

  • Fantastic post, Kevan!! You’re such a brilliant content crafter dude, one of my fave on the Interwebs. Hehee! I love BreakTime app for forcing me to get off my computer regularly. You can program it however you wish and it freezes up your computer at intervals you set. I usually do a 2 minute break every 45 on a good day (on a not so good day, I disable the app, oops!); but am going to try your 20 minute suggestion! :) http://www.breaktimeapp.com

  • Rolaa

    Thank you so much for this article! Very timely for me as I’m in active recovery from a slipped disc – which I got after 6 months of intense sitting, little walking and/or exercise and far too much stress! I’m now on a life revamp mission to avoid that ever happening again! Thank you!

    Furthermore, do you have any tips on how to make regular breaks happen in work cultures that aren’t aware of these facts? I’m thinking of the many meetings and conferences that people are expected to sit through; and there are only so many toilet breaks one can get away with..

    • Hi Rolaa! Just jumping in for Kevan because your story speaks so much to me (I ruptured a disc a few years ago; yuck!). Way to go on the goal to change your life in this way! We’ve written about breaks elsewhere on the blog; here’s a piece that might have some advice you can use or even share with your work team: http://open.bufferapp.com/science-taking-breaks-at-work/

      • Rolaa

        Thank you very much for jumping in, Courtney ;-). I’m much better and in a very lucky position that I’m self employed (sole trader), so I don’t disturb anyone getting up every 20 minutes and wandering about the place while making phone calls (one other way to give my spine a break from sitting). That other article is great too, just also looked up Focus Booster and Bullet Journal – food for thought, especially the latter ;-).

  • Agnes Dadura

    great DIY ideas for building own desk! I love the coffee hopping strategy too! Recently to add a little extra movement I do “walking” meditation during lunch time. I need to find some app for the 20 min reminders, Fitbit does not have that option (still love it though).

  • Really, I love these innovations! I really didn’t mind these ergonomics stuff before not until I had slip disc on my cervical spine 5 & 6 last September. I am very thankful that I am fully recovered now with the help of therapy and by using the very state-of-the-art TaskMate Go which enables me to always move and freely change positions from sitting to standing whenever I want to and whenever I feel my body needs to.