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

Update/Note After a bad fall on my mountain bike that jacked up my back and caused a broken rib, I started to exhibit back issues. My doctor and physical therapist recommend I try out a standing desk at work to see if it helped with my back fatigue that was caused by these injuries. As of this update, I have been using a standing desk for 1 week as well as doing my exercises. I will report back in a month (maybe a bit longer if time slips by) and let you know where I stand (get it? tee hee) on this issue and if my opinion has changed at all.

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.