It takes a catastrophic health event for many, if not most, Americans to embrace a major transformation in the ways they live, work and play. During the past five years, news reports of medical research has declared prolonged sitting as “the new smoking.” The link between sitting jobs and deadly disease processes galvanized the rise of the adjustable desk and the decline of the cubicle world as we knew it. Proactive, health-conscious workers and employers were unwilling to sit and wait for the sit to hit the fan.
Local restaurateur and civic leader Dan Borsch is one such worker. Having read numerous articles about the benefits of a standup desk, Borsch decided to give it a shot after sustaining a back injury while lifting an industrial dehumidifier.
“It made me really think about, going forward, the long-term health implications of that,” he said during a recent interview at the iconic Burger Boy diner, one of three Old Louisville restaurants he owns.
“So I got it and loved it. It took about two weeks to get used to the standing aspect of it. After that, I don’t notice it at all — and I love it.”
Three year later, Borsch, now 40, remains pain free. He doesn’t think it would have dissipated by exercise alone. “I do believe that, because of the standing desk, my back has been better than it would have been otherwise — without a doubt.”
His condition was never officially diagnosed. “My grandfather (the late Warren W. “Bill” Borsch Jr.) was a doctor, so I felt I could self-diagnose,” he said with a hearty laugh.
The desk occupies about a quarter of his office, a re-purposed closet off the rear wing of the diner.
“It was not the cheapest desk. I want to say it was almost $1,000,” he said, adding that the deluxe model “was pretty new at the time — but I felt it was worthwhile as opposed to, you know, getting in and out of a car and having back pain.”
In other ways, the desk was an investment he couldn’t afford not to make. Borsch and his wife, Nikole, have a young family. Their precious assets, a 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, have required some heavy lifting since the attack of the heavy appliance.
Borsch, also a co-owner of the Old Louisville Tavern and Toonerville Deli, now is focused on the battle of the bulge as he resists over-indulging in free, around-the-clock access to delicious food, which quality-control requires him to taste. “This last year, I’ve put on almost 20 pounds,” he said. “The plan is to reverse that as quickly as possible now that I have a little more free time.” (He spent the better part of the past two years focused on rebuilding Old Louisville Tavern, which was destroyed by arson in July 2014.)
And he won’t be sitting at his desk going forward. “There is a zero percent chance I will ever go back to a standard desk,” he declared. “Once you make that two-week transition or maybe three weeks — or however long it takes somebody to make that initial adjustment — there’s no looking back.”
Borsch’s transformative relief parallels that of “ultrarunner” Adam St. Pierre, as detailed in an article titled “Sitting: The Most Unhealthful Thing You Do.” Beset by tight hip flexors (the muscles that extend from the thighbone to the pelvis), he seized on the six hours he routinely spent tethered to his desk as the prime suspect, switched to a standing desk and ran his personal best two months later. “Since, I’ve even noticed my chronic low-back pain fade away,” he said.
The article graphically describes how habitual sitting contributes to metabolic syndrome, which the Mayo Clinic defines as “a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels — that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.” Here’s a more graphic description of what happens:
“Red blood cells in your legs begin to clump together, thickening inside your vessels and slowing circulation. If, later, you notice a further drop in energy, it’s because your body’s insulin production is down. The sugars … linger in your bloodstream, rather than being ushered into your muscles for energy. Soon a key element (lipase) responsible for vacuuming fat out of the blood deactivates. Small amounts of fat begin to accumulate in your blood; your body will store it in an easy-to-access central location — your gut … You may also have hunger cravings, even though you haven’t moved. That’s because your appetite-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin have gone off-kilter. Meanwhile … deep within your leg muscles, a gene (LPP1) critical for suppressing clotting and inflammation switches off. By the end of the day, even with a lunch break and trips to the water cooler, your good cholesterol and insulin sensitivity may have fallen 20 to 40 percent.”
Sitting disease may be even more concerning to women than men. A New York Times Magazine article headlined “Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?” cited American Cancer Society epidemiologist Alpa Patel’s 12-year research of 123,000 Americans. “The men in the study who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less,” according to the story. “The death rate for women who sat more than six hours a day was about 40 percent higher. Patel estimates that, on average, people who sit too much shave years off their lives.”
Experts differ on whether exercise before or after sit-a-thons mitigates their ill effects. But they agree, overwhelmingly, that numerous tactics otherwise limit adverse impacts.
The Washington Post in January 2014 published an informative, illustrated downloadable poster, “The health hazards of sitting,” which recommends: “sitting on something wobbly, stretching the hip flexors, walking during commercials, alternating between sitting and standing” as well as “trying yoga positions.”
Writing for mayoclinic.org, Dr. James E. Levine, a leading authority on the issue, urges:
- If you work at a desk for long periods of time, try a standing desk — or improvise with a high table or counter
- Walk laps with your colleagues rather than gathering in a conference room for meetings.
- Position your work surface above a treadmill — with a computer screen and keyboard on a stand or a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk — so that you can be in motion throughout the day.
These practices are becoming increasingly common at Humana, the Louisville-based heath insurance giant, where “workplace ‘neighborhoods’ with varying types of shared workstations” provide “multiple work options to over 4,850 associates,” according to Tim State, vice president of human resources at Humana.
“Adjustable work stations are free to those who qualify,” he wrote in response to e-mailed questions, though he declined to elaborate on how many employees actually benefit.
Furthermore, “Humana has walking workstations in 43 different facilities, providing shared access to at least 18,500 associates. This represents 55 percent of associates who work in Humana facilities. Also, tens of thousands of associates have completed ergonomics training, which helps them correctly adjust to their workstations and posture, presents simple stretching exercises that an associate can fit into their workday, and also provides tips and techniques to relieve and avoid discomfort.”
State also cited “promising results” due to various workplace health initiatives, including:
- 42 percent of associates employed since 2012 have reduced their modifiable health risks that lead to chronic conditions, including a 37 percent reduction in elevated blood pressure and a 26 percent reduction in elevated blood glucose associated with diabetes risk.
- Well-being — as measured by the four dimensions of purpose, health, belonging and security — has improved 26 percent.
And since 2011, “the rate of associates engaging in 2.5 or more hours of exercise each week has nearly doubled.
Accordingly, Humana has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Business Group’s top honor, the prestigious Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles (BEHL) Platinum award, for the past three years.
Humana is moving beyond the inertia-friendly “chair-based lifestyle” that the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Levine believes sickens more than just our body. “Go into cubeland in a tightly controlled corporate environment and you immediately sense that there is a malaise about being tied behind a computer screen seated all day,” he told the The New York Times in 2011. “The soul of the nation is sapped, and now it’s time for the soul of the nation to rise.”
Happily and healthfully, it seems to be moving in the right direction.