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Don’t Just Sit There

The human body isn’t designed to sit still and yet, that’s what many of us do every day. Lisa Witepski examines some alternatives.
Image: ©Unsplash - Lindsay Henwood Image: ©Unsplash - Lindsay Henwood

The key advantage of living in a time when features like kneeling chairs are an increasingly common part of the office is that no one looks twice when you walk on a treadmill instead of sitting at a desk. Indeed, it’s a relief for those of us who feel decidedly achy and creaky after a full day seated – a reaction that’s not surprising, since the sitting position is a decidedly unnatural one for a species that originated as hunter gatherers, always on the move.

In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, individuals who spend extended periods sitting are at greater risk of obesity and death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. What’s more, you can’t undo the effects of your office chair by going for a long run. The only solution is to cram in as much movement as possible into your day – and, given that most of us are office-bound, that means finding alternatives that force us to use different muscles.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of options for those who want to get mobile. First prize, says Natalie Arkin, a chiropractor from Johannesburg, is to spend as little time on that chair as possible. So, get up to pass a message to a colleague, stand up and walk about while you’re on a phone call, do shoulder and neck rolls while you’re typing, keep a full bottle of water on your desk and drink all of it so that you’re forced to make bathroom trips.

Another alternative, advises Peter Kowalski, managing director of Formfunc, is to purchase Office IQ, for example, a fitness tracker for your office desk. This sensor-based technology interfaces with users’ laptops and mobile devises to record calorie output and postural changes – it gives a handy prompt when it’s time to move around a bit.

Where to begin?

If you have to start small, swap your chair for an ergonomic model that takes all your weight and forces you to lean backwards, so that you don’t slump forward in an unsupported hunched heap.

More effective still would be to use a gym ball instead of a desk – but, Arkin warns, this solution really works only if you don’t actually sit for prolonged periods. If you’re constantly up and down, your core will be strengthened significantly as you try to stabilise yourself on the ball. If, however, you’re stuck in one position, you’ll begin to slump over even more than you would if you were sitting in a chair. The ball can therefore be counterproductive, unless users are mindful of their posture at all times: upper arms must remain parallel to the spine, and thighs parallel to the floor, with feet firmly planted.

The next level up would be a kneeling desk chair. Again, there are pros and cons. The awkwardness of getting on and off is a primary disadvantage. But kneeling chairs provide postural benefits and if you’re looking to ease neck and spinal issues, it may be the answer. It may also help boost blood circulation and, because of the position of the arms, can help prevent conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Stand up for yourself

The sit/stand desk may be a more effective alternative. Here, explains Kowalski, you need to watch out for models that make it difficult to change postures; the problem being that if it’s too much effort, users won’t be encouraged to move around, and the aim will be defeated. Worse still, since standing uses 20 per cent more energy than sitting, users will end up feeling more fatigued, faster. But even more alarming is the potential damage done to tendons and ligaments.

That’s not to say standing desks are entirely a bad idea. Humanscale, which is distributed locally by Formfunc, is designed so that users exert equal pressure on both               the top and underside of the table. This makes it easy to change from say, sitting to standing – and  the easier the desk is to use, the more rapidly it will be adopted.

Kowalski reiterates the need to maintain an awareness of posture and personal habits while standing. “We recommend standing for five to 12 minutes every hour, although each individual is different. Some feel discomfort sooner than others, and this is often influenced by how they stand; for example, if they usually stand on the one leg first and then on the other.”

Walking on the job

This leads us to the treadmill desk, as used by the likes of Jimmy Kimmel and Victoria Beckham and, here in South Africa, Monica Singer, CEO of South African central securities depository, Strate. Singer started using her treadmill desk in mid-2016. First attracted to the concept by her passion for technology and, following a major health scare, the need to take better care of herself, she maintains that the machine has had outstanding benefits.

“My serotonin levels are up and I have a lot more energy. It is highly efficient as I am achieving my fitness goals while I am at work,” she says. Singer is on the treadmill first thing in the morning, and uses it as often as possible. Now that she’s able to type competently while walking, the only time she doesn’t use it is when she is in meetings or signing documents. In fact, Singer was so impressed with the treadmill, she ordered another one for her team. Take-up, she says, has been remarkable.

The workplace movement trend has been noted by other corporates, some of who have upped the ante by installing office gyms. Of course, providing equipment doesn’t mean that it will be used.

Belinda van Rensburg of Matrix Fitness notes there are a number of reasons why the office gym may go ignored. “Equipment is a big issue,” she says. “People don’t like to use out-dated or unsafe equipment, and you can’t simply install equipment that would be fine for home use, but will fall apart if used by more than ten people a day. It’s also important to offer a complete facility that allows for a total body workout. And you need to show people how to use the equipment with an induction programme.”

Van Rensburg notes that possibly the most critical factor in encouraging use is through management: on average, companies can expect 60 to 70 per cent of staff to use a gym if it is managed; in contrast, unmanaged facilities tend to be used by only 25 per cent of staff.

Her advice to encourage optimal use? Install the most current, user-friendly equipment you can afford, and employ a personal trainer to run wellness programmes. Consider hosting wellness days to drive awareness. Finally, consult a professional company that understands the needs of the workforce in question and how these fit in with the available space and resources, and could design a workable space based on these factors.

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