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Standing Up for Writing

2013 July 30

Like all desk jobs, writing for a living is not associated with good physical fitness. Sitting at a desk for hours at a time without much body movement, other than tapping keys or raising one’s arm to sip a coffee or other beverage, does nothing positive for your physical fitness and health. Of course, we understand this and if we are concerned about our fitness, we schedule regular workout routines to offset our lack of physical activity at our desks. This is what I do year-round (see my blog post, How Fit are You?). I try to do at least three cardio-vascular workouts (jog, cross-country ski or recumbent bike) a week augmented with weight training and regular walking/bike-riding on the other days. So, if I maintain this regime, I should be all right with spending five to eight hours a day at my desk, right?

As it turns out, wrong. The fact I am sitting immobile for such a long time each day causes my body to produce less of the enzymes that burn fats, as outlined in a December 1, 2012 New York Times article by Steve Lohr. The loss can be as much as 90% and occurs despite how much physical activity you otherwise do. It can lead to many of  the health issues some of us fight each day: e.g., excess weight, high blood-sugar and cholesterol levels. It might indeed explain why, despite my workouts and diet, I can’t seem to lose much weight.

Now, standing up to write is nothing new. Such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill and Philip Roth stood to do their writing. Indeed, as outlined in Lohr’s article, sitting at a desk is actually a 20th century phenomenon. Prior to that, office workers regularly stood to do most of their work. With that in mind, I decided I should get off my rear-end and do something to make my work time a bit more healthy.

You can buy standing desks, ranging in price from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Not being sure how well I would adapt to this new mode of work, I decided to build my own low-cost standing desk from one of those listed in Lohr’s article: i.e., Colin Nederkoorn’s The Stand Desk 2200.

Stand Desk

My Stand Desk 2200 in use.

My stand desk cost $17.98 (Cdn) for the same or similar Ikea materials Nederkoorn used (Lack Side Table, $12.99; Ekby Shelf, $2.99; 2-brackets, $2.00; plus some wood screws I already had). It took less than an hour to assemble and the whole operation can be taken down quickly (without disassembly) if you or someone else decides to sit at the desk.

For my height (6’0”; 1.8 m), the table on top of my desk just fit my requirements with my 24” iMac monitor. If you have a smaller or lower mounted screen, you might want to raise it using an old book or similar object to prevent neck strain and other ergonomic issues. The height of the  shelf is easily adjusted to accommodate comfortable use of the keyboard.

Standing in one place for a period of time takes some getting used to. In the first week, I found myself often retreating to my comfy desk chair to relax my legs. However, as I got used to the idea, I soon easily stood for 20 to 30 minutes at a time without problem. As well, health experts warn us about staring at a computer screen for too long at a time. So, my legs remind me when I should take a break. As a result, I have found that I am better at organizing my time: concentrating on what needs to be done at the computer and using my rest time to address muse, plot and next steps.

To relieve some of the tension that builds in my leg muscles, I have placed a block of wood (actually an old 4”-high computer stand from the days when bulky CPUs stood on the floor) just under my desk. The block allows me to shift my weight from one leg to the other by alternately placing my feet on it. I learned this trick from an auto-mechanic friend of mine who regularly stands at his computer in the shop while analyzing engines.

Many people have also incorporated treadmills or stationary bikes into their stand desks. I have not yet done this as I like what I’ve done so far and don’t want to take away from the energy I still need to get a good cardio-workout completed away from my desk and in the outdoors when possible. If I find an economical treadmill that doesn’t take up too much space, I might try it, especially in winter when outside conditions can be trying.

Overall, I’ve found using my standing computer desk to be a boon to my writing. With regard to my fitness, I have improved the strength in my back. Being in my late 60s, I regularly take blood tests to monitor glucose and cholesterol levels, and they have indeed improved. Whether that and some weight loss is directly related to the standing desk, I cannot say, as I’ve also improved my diet and concentrated on my cardio training. However, perhaps what is most important is that standing at my desk while writing makes me feel I’m doing something positive for my health while earning my living doing what I love. So, what’s wrong with that?

P.S. An article in the August 10, 2013 Economist, Standing Orders lists some of the scientific studies highlighting the positive effects standing while working.

P.P.S. Yet another article, this time from the BBC. Also, here’s a link to how author Arthur Slade uses a treadmill desk. Don’t miss the video at the bottom!

Also, see my comment below with regard to why I’m now sitting at my desk.

From → The Biz

  1. Update: Here’s a link to an article in the Globe and Mail about how to use and adjust to a stand-desk:
    Also, I should relate that after using my stand desk for 18 months, I started developing pain in my lower back and upper legs. It turns out that my constant standing was aggravating an old injury I had with my back, pinching my nerves. Sitting was the only way I could get relief. I have since been taking physiotherapy and my back and motion is getting better, but I’m back to a sitting desk with frequent breaks to keep my back and the rest of me flexible. Yes, I’m still doing full workouts, once I recover from the physiotherapy. The key for me now is to keep moving.

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  1. The Dangers of Sitting

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