Tuesday 25 October 2016

Interiors: Work it... counteracting the harm of sitting all day

Sitting all day for work isn't good for your health but adjustable desks could help

Eleanor Flegg

Published 16/10/2015 | 02:30

The colour co-ordinated home office pieces by Habitat.
The colour co-ordinated home office pieces by Habitat.
Bekant desks
String office furniture
Ikea office desk

'One cannot think and write except when seated," wrote the novelist Gustave Flaubert to Guy de Maupassant in the mid nineteenth century. "A civilized person needs much less locomotion than the doctors claim."

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How wrong he was. Sitting at a desk all day is really bad for you. A glance at the latest research is enough to put the frighteners on anyone who sits down to work. Apparently, sedentary workers have a much higher risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, obesity and a whole range of nasty stuff. Sitting, they say, is the new smoking and going to the gym at the end of the day isn't enough to reverse the damage. Our bodies need the constant subtle movement of standing and walking in order to work properly.

This could be the latest faddish health scare, but I'm inclined to take it seriously. People who work from home like I do are among the highest risk groups. We don't commute. We're disciplined and cultivate tunnel-vision to stay focused. And most of our meetings take place online or on the phone. In the United States, the average office worker spends five hours and forty one minutes sitting at their desk. The average home worker can spend even longer.

And the findings of new research is influencing the range of home office furniture and accessories which are being offered to us today. Not least is the increased availability of so called "sit/stand" desks which are flexible enough by their configuration to inter-disperse periods of sitting with standing which fend off the effects of being parked on your posterior all day. But such home working arrangements are not new. There have always been people who preferred to work standing up. There are photographs of Winston Churchill working (cigar clamped between his teeth) at a standing desk. Hemingway preferred to stand while he wrote and so did both Charles Dickens and Benjamin Franklin. And the philosopher Friedich Nietzsche wrote that a sedentary life is "the real sin against the Holy Spirit. Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value." That said, Neitzsche was a bit of a nut job.

Standing at a desk all day is also exhausting and causes health problems of its own, sore legs being one of them. Ideally, people who work at a desk should spend some of the time sitting and some of the time standing, with regular short walks. One solution is to use a standing desk with a tall chair that you can pull up as you need it. Another is to work at a electronic height-adjustable desk that moves up and down at the flick of a switch. In Denmark it's mandatory for employers to offer their workers sit-stand desks.

Until recently, sit-stand desks have tended to be quite expensive - retailing for around €1,000. Electronic height adjustable desks from the ergonomic specialists Kos, for example, range from €1,044 to €1,277. This is a big outlay for something that may prove to be an experiment. More recently, cheaper models have become available but even these are expensive enough to make you think twice.

A sit-stand desk from Standing Desk would set you back €699 and Ikea's Bekant sit-stand desk starts at €545. If the desk changes your working habits, this could be money well spent. If you end up not sitting anyway, you'd be better off spending €120 on a Bekant desk without sit-stand function.

With all this in mind, I've spent the last six weeks working from the Bekant sit-stand desk to see if it would change my habits. It did. Like Flaubert, I must admit to a moment of panic the first time I tried to think on my feet. I felt that I couldn't concentrate unless I sat down to it. Once I got over this I found that I was more alert in a standing position. Now, I'm a convert to the sit-stand culture. And yes, I'm writing this standing up.

The Bekant desk is light in form and visually inoffensive. The table top (120 by 80cm) is beech veneer, but also comes in black or white, and all the models have two t-shaped telescopic legs. Full disclosure here - I was daunted by the prospect of self-assembling a motorised desk and asked my technically competent son to put it together. Once assembled, it looks no different to a normal plain two-legged desk.

Pressing a button on the front engages an electric motor that adjusts the height of the table-top from 65 (sitting position) to 125 cm (standing). It can carry 70 kilos, which is more than enough for a monitor, printer and a pile of books, but I wouldn't recommend sitting or even leaning heavily on the edge of the desk. Likewise, you have to make sure that cables and other pieces of furniture are kept out of the way so that the desk doesn't catch on anything on the way up or down. It's a relatively delicate piece of furniture that needs due care and attention.

One of the design-led alternatives, which I have seen but haven't actually used, is the new Works height-adjustable desk from the Swedish company, String. It costs around €2,075 from Inreda.

The tri-part legs are prettier than the t-base legs of most low-cost alternatives and the String desk also seems sturdier than my Ikea model.

"If I sat on the edge of the desk there would be no problem," says Jonas Wetterlof of String.

"It has two engines, one on each side, and a collision-detect function that prevents it from knocking against something on the way down." Neither the Ikea nor the String desk has a tilt function, which is useful to architects and designers.

If you simply must sit, or the cost is too high, there is of course many regular desks to choose from. String also provide sleek examples of fixed workstations while Habitat's provide some stylish colourful options.

For those who think best while walking, an under-desk treadmill costs around €1,087 from LifeSpan. Nietzsche would have approved. For me, this is a step too far. Going for a walk at lunchtime doesn't cost anything.

For more info on the products mentioned, see ikea.com.ie; inreda.ie; kos.ie; standingdesk.ie; string.se; habitat.co.uk and lifespanfitness.com.

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