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Clippings: Don't just sit there, it might kill you

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Posted on May 3, 2012 |
By Andrew Stein



Plowing through stories to meet looming deadlines is an everyday occurrence for reporters at the Addison Independent and publications across the country.

But, the other week, I emerged from this heavy state of concentration with shoulders stiff as steel sheaths and a back knotted like an old oak tree. Worse yet, I felt like someone had dropped an anvil on my butt.

All in all, I felt downright awful.

With blurry eyes, I turned to face my colleague Andrea. She was typing away with a brace strapped tight to her wrist — repetitive stress, she told me.

We’re 24 years old and here we were with gnarled backs and gimpy wrists. All from working long hours sitting at a desk, drumming away on a computer.

Herein lies one of the biggest problems for future working generations.

More and more, we rely on computers for our jobs. But our problem isn’t computers; it’s how we use them. And sitting is one of the biggest health risks associated with computer use.

Sitting too much, it turns out, can kill you.

In 2009, a group of scientists at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana completed a study that correlated sitting time to mortality rates. The research drew from information on more than 17,000 Canadians.

When I first learned about this study, my initial thought was, “I’m fine. So what if I sat for years in school, and I sit all day at work? I’m active. I regularly go on 30-plus-mile bike rides and five-mile runs.”

It turned out I was wrong. I wasn’t in the clear, and the pain in my back was telling me so.

Travis Saunders, an exercise physiologist writing for Scientific American, summed up the findings of the Pennington group’s research.

“The relationship between sitting time and mortality was independent of physical activity levels,” he wrote. “In fact, individuals who sat the most were roughly 50 percent more likely to die during the follow-up period than individuals who sat the least, even after controlling for age, smoking, and physical activity levels.”

Despite regular exercise, sitting for lengthy periods is detrimental to our cardiovascular and overall health.

As Marc Hamilton, a microbiologist at Pennington, has popularly put it: “Too much sitting is not the same as too little exercise.”

So what does a researcher like Hamilton do while crunching data on a computer?

He stands, which is something our publisher, Angelo Lynn, has taken to doing. Aside from standing, there are loads of other alternatives.

On the technology front, there are elliptical machine office desks, which Hammacher Schlemmer sell for a mere $8,000 — maybe not the most wallet-friendly alternative to the desk chair. There are treadmill desks that go for about $2,000, which look to me like a concussion waiting to happen. There are portable desk pedals to turn your workstation into a stationary recumbent bike, and there are portable elliptical platforms — not really sure how these work.

In our Middlebury office, some of us are simply converting to big, blowup, exercise balls. Starksboro town treasurer Celine Coon has used one for years and she swears by it, and most of our production crew are recent converts. A quick sweep to the west side of our office will reveal people who have found a nice balance — pun intended — between work and exercise. I hear that a quick set of sit-ups here and a deep back stretch there can make a world of difference throughout the work day.

For an even simpler alternative, take more breaks. Saunders pointed to other studies that show taking breaks to walk around, even if brief, are crucial to keeping a healthy body functioning.

“When we do have to sit for extended periods of time (which, let’s face it, is pretty much every single day for many of us) we should take short breaks whenever possible,” he said. “Such breaks include asking a co-worker a question rather than e-mailing it, going to the bathroom, getting a drink of water or even walking a quick lap around the room.”

But what about Andrea’s wrist troubles? And the nagging pain in the back of my hand at the end of some days? Or the thousands of carpal tunnel patients who have fallen victim to keyboards around the world?

That’s just it — the keyboard … it … well … stinks. At this point, I’m attached to it. But regardless of if you’re for the QWERTY (the type almost all of us use) or the Dvorak (another kind that some claim is more efficient because it puts 70 percent of English keystrokes on the home row, as opposed to 32 percent for QWERTY), keyboards are going out of style for everyday use, and dictation software is coming in. Just look at the popular Apple software Siri, which allows smartphone users to control their iPhone by voice with unparalleled efficiency.

Combine touch screens with enhanced dictation devices and software and most of us won’t have a need for keyboards — save coders, graphic designers and so on. And if we rid ourselves of keyboards, it would be much easier to rid ourselves of desks.

In 30 years, I hope kids will look at our current desk-and-keyboard ways with disgust, as they orally drill out written reports on paper-thin flat screens while riding stationary bikes.

Disclosure: Andrew bounced his way through most of this article on an exercise ball. He can be reached at andrews@addisonindependent.com.

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