Seeking better health, more Baylor faculty and staff are standing up while they work
By Julie Carlson
What if you could improve your health and physical fitness and become more productive at work –– all without joining a gym, taking up yoga, altering your diet or attending a single self-help seminar? It sounds too good to be true, but a growing number of Baylor University faculty and staff, including several in the College of Arts & Sciences, believe they are on the way to reaping those benefits after trading in their traditional sit-down desks for new desks designed to be used while standing.
For a number of years, newspapers and magazines have been full of study results and pronouncements from health experts that claim excessive sitting poses significant health risks. For example, research has shown that the death rate for men who sit for more than six hours a day is about 20 percent higher than it is for men who sit three hours a day or less –– and about 40 percent higher for women in the same circumstances. Excessive sitting has also been linked with increased risks of obesity, heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, while a study has shown that reducing excessive sitting could increase life expectancy by two years.
Studies have also shown that standing during significant parts of the day has the potential to reduce many of the health risks associated with excessive sitting while burning an extra 30,000 calories per year.
To accommodate those who wish to stand while they work, a number of companies have come up with ways to modify existing sit-down desks or add an adjustable standing desk that can be placed on top of just about any flat surface.
One of the first persons in Arts & Sciences to switch from a sitting to a standing desk was Dr. Lee C. Nordt, dean of the College, who tried a standing desk after sitting became increasingly uncomfortable for him, possibly due to a bout of sciatica that caused pain in his lower back. He now owns a high-tech desk that allows him to change the height with the touch of a button.
“I was dubious at first, but it has been remarkable. I can sit for much longer periods now,” Nordt said. “I adjusted to it quickly, and I stand for hours now and hardly notice.”
Standing desks used for writing or reading while standing up have been around awhile, becoming popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. While modern studies on the health benefits of standing desks do not all agree on whether using one can actually better one’s health, Arts & Sciences faculty and staff members who are using standing desks are convinced their health has been improved by them, and are ready to provide enthusiastic testimonials for potential converts.
Mark Anderson, chair and professor of art, has used a standing desk for around 10 months.
“I got one after my office manager and administrative assistant got theirs. I knew I wanted one, and needed one for health reasons,” Anderson said. “Sitting at the computer all day is not good, and I needed exercise and a way to burn calories. I usually use it in the mornings. I also have an exercise ball I sit on in the afternoon. That has strengthened my core muscles.”
Dr. Elizabeth Willingham, associate professor of Spanish, concurs. She uses a standing desk both in her office and at home. In fact, she had a home office standing desk long before she tried one in her Baylor office.
“I have a podium in my Baylor office that rolls and also holds some course materials and supplies for the classroom. I have had that about a year,” Willingham said. “In my home office, I have a computer presentation desk that raises and lowers. I’ve used that for two or three years. Standing for some of my work time is better for my back and probably better for concentration and circulation. It probably has a good effect on my mind and my work and well as on my body.”
Studying the trend
Researchers in Baylor’s Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation in the Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences are investigating these very issues. They have recruited faculty and staff in Arts & Sciences and other areas of the University to use standing desks in order to learn more about the health profiles, energy expenditure and productivity levels of people who stand at work.
Margaret Kramer, office manager/coordinator in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media, is one of those in Arts & Sciences taking part in the Baylor study.
“I had read several research articles about the negative effects on our bodies due to being sedentary for long periods of time,” Kramer said. “I have been a licensed massage therapist for many years and I’ve treated many clients who have pain issues caused by sitting for long periods of time or not being aware of what is ergonomically correct. I knew several colleagues who expressed pros and cons about the use of the desks, and I wanted to find out for myself and hopefully become healthier.”
Kramer has been using her standing desk since November 2015. She has no set schedule for when she makes use of it, because sometimes a work project necessitates sitting.
“I have become more accustomed to standing and working. I now find myself getting restless when my body perceives it’s been sitting too long without a break,” she said.
Dr. Sara Stone, chair and professor of journalism, public relations and new media, learned about the Baylor research study from Kramer and decided to sign on. She’s used a standing desk since January 2016.
“Two years ago I spent hours sitting at my desk for several months working on a self-study for our department in advance of a site visit for reaccreditation,” Stone said. “That project, coupled with all the report writing that is attached to the chair job, meant I was sedentary for hours at a time every day. I knew that was very bad for your health.”
Both Stone and Kramer use a popular adjustable desk sold under the name VARIDESK, which can be easily lowered to sitting height. In the beginning Stone would lower the desk for a couple of hours a day, but she hasn’t had to do that for more than nine months.
“I stand to do all my computer work. I have a table and chairs in my office and can sit if I need to handle handwritten correspondence or if I need to have a student conference,” she said.
Walking while working
Dr. Paul Martens, associate professor of religion, has taken the standing-while-working practice to another level. In his office the past two years, Martens has used a LifeSpan Fitness treadmill desk –– which allows him to walk on a treadmill as he works on the attached standing desk. Although he first explored getting a standing desk, in the process of looking at standing workstations he discovered treadmill desks.
“I realized that if standing at work is good, then walking is probably better. Since I have a hard time sitting still anyway, it’s kind of a natural fit for me,” Martens said.
Martens’ desk has a variable speed option, but he usually sets the treadmill to allow him to walk at a pace of 1-2 m.p.h. Whether he makes use of the treadmill function depends on a number of factors, especially the temperature of his office, whether he is in the middle of an intense writing project, and whether he is meeting with someone else in his office. Some kinds of tasks, such as reading, answering emails and making phone calls, can be accomplished while walking, but other tasks require a level of concentration that makes doing them while walking on a treadmill somewhat risky.
“In terms of maintaining fitness, I prefer to run or ride bike outside,” Martens said. “That said, I take the desk to be a complement that keeps my body awake when I’m in the office for longer periods of time. I mean, walking a mile or two while in the office is always a good thing, especially in winter when time outside is more limited.”
Willingham agrees. “If one exercises and therefore has muscle tone in the lower body and can comfortably stand with the heels set about a foot apart and the feet turned slightly outward for 15–20 minutes at a time, the use of a standing desk should be a success,” she said. “Using the standing desk should be a reasonably easy habit for fit people to start. If they can alternate positions and dedicate certain tasks to the standing desk, they should be able to use one without discomfort.”
Everyone surveyed for this article has encouraged colleagues to try a standing desk. For those interested in making the switch, Baylor Human Resources has standing desk options listed on a dedicated webpage as well as tips for working at a standing desk. The University also encourages faculty and staff to hold standing or walking meetings. In fact, research shows that standing meetings are more productive while being shorter.
“I would encourage them to try one,” Kramer said. “There are several people on campus now who have a standing desk and would be willing to let someone come by and ‘test drive’ it. The desk I have is so easily adjustable that it takes very little effort to raise or lower it to a comfortable position. The VARIDESK that I have sits on top of my existing desk so I still have access to desk drawers with the files I need.”
Anderson’s VARIDESK is one of the company’s larger models, measuring 48 inches wide and including two tiers. He can get his extra monitor, laptop, phone, keyboard, speakers, hand lotion and a pile of paper on it.
“This model is handy as such because of all the stuff I can put on it that I have easy access to,” he said. “If someone sits at a desk all day or has developed aches in their stomach, back or legs, then they should go ahead and get one.”