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What happens when you sit at a desk for 13 years - and actually exercise.


Me doing a handstand in 2008

This writing was prompted by yet another article posted to Hacker News. There is always an overabundance of articles about somebody moving to a standing desk to combat some health issue. To me, this has always seemed a bit futile as well as overkill. You're still sedentary. You're providing very little benefit to your overall well being and it's simply yet another way that people are trying to get something for nothing when it comes to health . I've read a lot of the examples of it's positive effects. I've read a lot of the raving reviews of people that do this, but I ultimately come to the same conclusion every time I read this stuff... exercise a little bit every day. It's healthier than standing all day, it's free, doesn't require expensive furniture, doesn't require you to beg your boss for something expensive and it's something you should be doing anyway.

For the past 13 years I have been a software engineer. Before then, I was in the car window tinting business where I was on my feet for 8 hours a day and moving more than frequently. I would tint anywhere from 4 to 8 cars a day. The only time I would sit down was to a 30 minute lunch. I did this for 5 years, I was also a lot younger than I am now, obviously. Let me make a comparison of somebody that was actively moving around in a career to becoming very sedentary and then mixing up a sedentary career along with regular exercise.

I don't know why I got into the car window tinting business when I was younger. I just thought it seemed like a cool thing to do and I wanted to learn it. This was also why I got into computer programming. This is also why I have recently gotten into Body Language and Facial Action Coding Systems. I just think something sounds neat and I dive in. So for about a year, I tried my hardest to learn how to tint windows. It was rough until finally I had a company offer me a job making crap money. They were the number one window film seller in the south east of Llumar window films. This meant that they received constant training on new techniques by the factory and it also meant that they attracted some great window tinters. People that can do very, very clean window film installations and 1 piece rear window installations on cars. Some cars are easy to do, while other cars cause you to say words out loud that you didn't know actually existed until you said them. I accepted the crap pay with a smile on my face because it meant that I would get to learn from the best - and I most certainly did. I still have a grasp of this trait and I actually do all of my own cars still.

However, I digress... I was in my early 20's and worked my butt off at that place. I stood all day long except for my lunch time, as explained earlier, and in the winter, it was a bit less busy so I got to hang out and sit for about 30 minutes or so between cars sometimes. Then it was about 1-2 hours of standing, moving, twisting, shifting, cursing and having fun. In the summer, however, it was constant standing, stressful and a lot less fun, but still an enjoyable career that one can take some great pride in doing. I wasn't lifting anything heavy, just standing all day, walking around a car, getting in and out of a trunk or back seat to fit window film into the rear window... It was certainly a completely different field than what I'm in now.

I did not exercise at the time. I was in good health, I did not have any physical issues. This maintained for about 5 years of my life. I would feel tired after work just like mostly anyone else. However, I did not have any muscle mass, my posture was terrible and I slouched even when I walked around, regardless of standing up all day. My mother used to comment on my slouching constantly.

When I started writing code, I sat down for long periods of time. 8 hours, 10 hours, 12 hours... I would get up occasionally for something to drink, 5-10 minute breaks to take a walk and clear my head, an hour to go eat some lunch, etc... However, I still did not exercise. I did notice quite a difference in how I felt physically. I felt a lot more tired. I felt depressed sometimes. I gained a lot of body fat. My posture worsened. I got high cholesterol.

Fast forward to a few years later when my sister convinced me to start exercising with her. I took her up on this offer and she showed me some basics and it became another one of those things that I got fascinated by and surrounded myself with knowledge on the topic of exercise, health and personal fitness. I read a lot by Dr. Ellington Darden on the topic at first and then spanned my reading into other fitness gurus. After about 3 months of consistent exercise which mostly just included resistance training, I felt a lot better. My posture was something that improved immediately. When I walked, I was actually standing upright. I attribute this to actually exercising my back muscles to pull my shoulder back and into the correct position. I felt less fatigued, a lot less depressed and a lot less tired at the end of the day. I looked forward to my 30-45 minute weight lifting session.

Further into my exercise fit, I started lifting heavier weight and focusing on form a lot more. I finally had shoulder muscles. I had chest muscles. I had arm muscles and my legs were getting some crazy muscle on them. I got a little obsessed and started more into a body building routine. I put on 40 pounds of muscle one year alone by eating until I couldn't move, and then lifting as heavy as I could. I got up to doing a 400 pound deadlift, 225 pound squat, 195 pound bench press and I was doing pull-ups with an additional 90 pounds of weight added to a chain around my waist. This was a huge deal for me. When I started, I could barely do a 65 pound bench press. I couldn't do a single pull-up and as for squats... it was ugly.

Time went by and I got annoyed with lifting that much and eating a lot. I scaled back a lot. I started focusing more on bodyweight exercises. Standard pull-ups, push-ups, body weight squats, handstand push-ups, dips, etc... I added some cardio by way of mountain biking a couple of times a week, doing martial arts a couple of times a week and even doing attainments with kayaking on the weekends (paddling upstream on a river).

I still sit down at my desk 8-10 hours a day. Sometimes longer. Some days I don't exercise at all. I have even been through stints where I stopped exercising for months. I had chronic shoulder dislocations since I was 17 years old and finally got shoulder surgery in 2011 and did not exercise for 8 months other than physical therapy. I can tell a difference when I take that long off from exercising and just sitting behind a desk all day. However, it's a drop in the bucket compared to how often I do exercise and all of the active things I have grown to love over the years in my quest for health and fitness and to be active.

So what's the result of 13 years of sitting behind a desk and actually exercising? I'm healthier than I ever was when I worked a job where I had to stand and move all day long. My weight workouts consist of 30 minute routines with a mix of bodyweight resistance and weighted resistance. I don't have a gym membership. I do this in my garage. I do this 2-3 times a week. The other days, I jump out and do a quick 30-45 minute mountain bike ride. I may practice martial arts with my wife for an hour or so. I'll go kayaking on the weekends. My posture is still better than it was when I stood up all day. My muscle mass, while not as big as it was when I got into "body building", is still outstanding for a person my age. I recently had a physical and was deemed to be a super hero. No, seriously though, I was given an all clear for everything. All healthy with no bad cholesterol issues, normal blood pressure, etc... Which is actually quite surprising because I eat like absolute crap.

For less than an hour a day, I'm healthy. Even after sitting down for 8 hours. I swap out my workouts frequently so that I maintain interest in what I'm doing. I work on things and do exercises that interest me. This is the ticket. You can buy tons of expensive ergonomic office furniture and stand up all day long and it will never give you the benefit of real exercise. It's that simple. I'm living proof. I'm more healthy now than I was when I was 21. I also have a lot less hair.


this video might provide a further point

Posted by andima, on

Getting a stand up desk isn't more expensive than a sit down desk.

Posted by Neil Durbin, on

If you already have a standard desk, buying an additional desk that isn't going to really address the underlying issue at hand, is indeed expensive for some people. If you're out desk shopping anyway and you feel like you want to stand up all day, then you're right, it probably isn't anymore expensive.

Posted by dean, on

Half our running excercise is better than any ergonomic thing ever. Living proof.

Posted by me, on

Thanks for the post. I think this brings both appproaches into the right perspective. The key in both posts -exercise!

Posted by Andy, on

Exercise because you want to your brain to work better. The pleasant side effect is that the rest of your body will also get in shape.

Posted by Charles Feduke, on

Well all that said, sitting down all day and exercise doesnt need to exclude an height adjustable desk so that you can mix and match sitting standing throughout the day.

Posted by Andreas, on

Also worth mentioning is that if you have cushioned shoes you wont maintain a natural posture when standing.

I recommend anyone getting shoes from vivobarefoot for standing up and working, running or any activity really. With a regular shoe you are constantly adjusting your posture since your feet are not flat on the ground.

Posted by Andreas, on

Dean, according to a medical study exercise does nothing to reduce the morbidity rates of people who sit for long periods of time:

That's the reason for stand-up desks, not as a replacement for exercise, but as a way to curb risk of early morbidity.

Posted by Steven Seagal, on

I also thought the article was a bit off. I do think standing desks in the workplace can be appropriate depending on the setting. I, however, think that the benefits are mostly in productivity, while maybe being marginally more healthy (than sitting properly, with proper exercise).

Posted by Cory Gross, on

It seems to me that the purpose of "yet another article" is just to promote the Power 20 application.

As about working style (sitting or standing) I fully agree with you.

Posted by Alex, on

Steven Seagal, I'm supposed to believe some guys with "PhDs" who studied 222,497 people over one person's personal experience?

Posted by Seagal's Nemesis, on

Steven Seagal,

That's a gross misrepresentation of the study, and I hope that one one has read your comment and decided to not exercise and buy a standup desk today.

If look at the study, you'll still see that exercise reduces morbidity substantially across the board. In fact, even when sitting for up to eight hours per day (and more in some cases) the exercise group has lower risk than their control population at 0-4 hours per day.

The point of the study is that sitting is still bad for you, even if you exercise. However, exercise provides WAY more benefits across the board than a standing desk. So IMO if you're going to do just ONE thing -- EXERCISE! :)

Posted by Adin Scannell, on

dean, I think you miss the point.

Standing at a desk provides more benefits than sitting at a desk. It is not an alternative to exercise.

80% of the population needs to exercise no matter if you sit at a desk or stand at a desk. There are studies that state if you sit at a desk all day and move(exercise) everyday vs. stand at a desk all day & move(exercise) everyday, that standing decreases morbidity over sitting. Adin stole my thunder, but I think its worth pointing out over and over again to people to get it through their heads. Stand when you can. Walk when you can. Move when you can.

Sitting and inaction are not healthy.

Posted by Scott, on

I agree one should get up and walk around and not sit for a solid day in a chair. I do this. Not only because of the health benefits, but for the mental benefits. My point is that if you exercise correctly and have smart work habits, the standup desk isn't needed. Most people find coding while standing up to be a pain in the ass and concentrate better while sitting down. I feel like my transformation is proof that you can have a healthy lifestyle and still sit at a normal desk.

Posted by dean, on

Thank you Adin for actually reading through an article and understanding what it says. I hate it when articles get misrepresented.

Posted by Justin Barclay, on


Posted by Aly Al, on

Doesn't matter if you stand or sit. Choose one that works for you. I myself prefer standing nowadays. It makes me more creative, I think.

Posted by steveklabnik?, on

I think people are seeing this in a polarized way. You should not spend all you day sitting. But that doesn't mean you need to work 8h-9h/day standing.

The downside of sitting all day is moving less, back pain, but that could be compensated with exercises every day, walking to work (parking your car far or anything that will make you walk more) and also doing stretches and moving a bit during each couple hours. And we actually do this when we go lunch, grab a coffee, go to the restroom, someones room, etc.

But the downsides of standing up all day can be really bad. Of all professionals I know of that stand all that, most of them use compressing long socks, really bulcky-confortable shoes, rest their feet for an hour putting them up when they seat at sofa when they get home and still they have bad circulation, pains, swollen feet, etc etc. And that can really make exercising more difficult also. The upside is that is good for you spine and also you get to move a lot, but that doesn't mean you will be fit, because it's not real exercise, unless you are the postman.

So, I think the real deal here is that everything abused could be really bad for you.

But I still prefer to have a job where I could be sitting all day, but I choose to get up and do exercises too, than to have a job that requires me to standup all day and I would not have decent pause.

Posted by Lucas Arruda, on

@Lucas; well said and my sentiments exactly.

Posted by dean, on


Kudos for advocating exercise but the point of the meta-study that is causing the buzz about standing desks is that even if you are a "superhero" exerciser and yet sit on your duff 8+ hours a day, you are significantly shortening your life.

Exact words from the study: "The association between sitting and all-cause mortality appears relatively consistent across women and men, age groups, BMI categories, and physical activity levels and across healthy participants compared with those with preexisting cardiovascular disease or diabetes mellitus."

Also, think about standing desks as a gateway drug for exercise. It's one small change that sedentary folks can do that does not require an hour-a-day commitment. After that, they might be inspired to be health "superheros" like you.

Posted by S Jones, on

The study does not say, nor does it suggest that one should stand up for 8-10 hours a day either. It mentions quite a few times that sitting times should be shortened. I am in complete agreement with that. One should not sit down for literally 8-10 hours a day. Every hour, you should get up, move around, stretch and do a little walking.

As @Adin pointed out, the article also states that exercise reduces morbidity substantially across the board. Sitting for prolonged periods of time is certainly bad for you, but even if one were to only use a standing desk and then were compared to one that sat for prolonged periods of time and exercised frequently, the sitter in this instance would still be a healthier individual than the person that just opted to stand. Simply put, just standing all day does not do the job. If one were to stand all day and exercise regularly, yes, that may be a good mix. However, the study does not suggest such a thing. It simply suggests to shorten the time that one sits down.

I also disagree that a standing desks is a gateway drug for exercise. I've stated my experiences above with working a job for 5 years of doing nothing but standing and moving around and it did not prompt me to exercise at all. However, this is as simple as walking into a grocery store and talking to the checkout clerks. They all stand throughout their day. I can say that in my area, unless the clerk is a teenager, the lack of exercise is obvious.

Do as the study says. shorten your sitting times. At no point does the study say to stand on your feet for 8 hours a day and expect it to increase your health.

Posted by dean, on

"I may practice martial arts with my wife for an hour or so"

Domestic violence is wrong.

Posted by Nunya, on

The answer is simple, exercise before you go to work, use strength training or any anaerobic activity to keep your metabolism elevated while you work then when you get out of work hit the gym again with aerobic workouts. You can thank me later.

Posted by Truth teller, on

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