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Are our chairs killing us?

Scientists urge workers to get up and moving

POSTED: August 11, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Leaning toward a computer in a hunched position is the incorrect way to sit in a chair. Sitting in this position will cause back pain, scientists say.

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There’s a saying that sitting is the new smoking. It’s a bit snarky and perhaps a none-too-subtle dig at those of us who spend a lot of time on our rear ends for work and pleasure. But Dr. James Levine, who is credited with it, is dead serious. In fact, he says, sitting could be worse than smoking.

“Get Up!” is the title of Levine’s new book, a jovial tale of how he came to the scientific conclusion that our chairs are killing us and what can be done to stop the threat.

We lose two hours of life for every hour we sit, writes Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and inventor of the treadmill desk. Sitting all day is not natural and to blame for all kinds of ailments, including obesity, he says.

“We have created for ourselves a modern way of living that clashes with the way we’re meant to be,” he writes.

This statement rings true to Ainslie Kriston, the workers compensation program coordinator at The Rehabilitation Institute of Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

“As we technologically advance, more of our jobs are sedentary,” she said. “People are sitting longer at their computer at work, and then they go home and sit in front of a different computer or in front of their smartphone.”

All of this sitting adds up to one giant pain — literally.

“(Sitting) has been proven to increase back pain,” Kriston said.

And while that might not seem like a life-threatening scenario as serious as Levine’s warnings, Kriston said back pain seriously affects America’s workforce. Back pain serves as the most common work-related disability in America, and it proves to be the leading contributor to job-related absenteeism.

“The average American is going to be off more often because of generalized back pain,” Kriston said.

So the obvious answer is to move more, for example, by taking walks after meals, something Levine writes that he does after every meal.

“On one hand, the good news is that this is incredibly easy. The bad news is this is incredibly difficult,” especially for a computer-centric workforce, Levine said in a telephone interview.

Yet Levine is optimistic the revolution to overthrow sitting is at hand. He sees the arrival of dynamic offices, with walking paths from department to department, active senior centers and classrooms. Those will lead to healthier and happier people, he said.

“I think the revolution is coming,” Levine said. “It’s going to happen. The cool companies, cool executives are not driving BMWs, they’re on treadmills. My kids won’t be working the way my colleagues and myself have.”

One such company is ZF Industries , a technology group with three facilities in Gainesville .

“I think (changing the way people work) is one piece of wellness,” said Bryan Johnson , senior manager of corporate communications.

The company has purchased numerous sit-to-stand desks, which can mechanically be raised at any time, so the worker can transition from a seated position to a standing one.

“We implemented the desks throughout the facility, and it provides everybody with the flexibility to stand at their work station at different times and to sit at their desk at different times,” Johnson said. “It improves that balance between sitting and standing, and it helps to create working conditions that removes the strain of sitting.”

These desks continue to rise in popularity locally.

Scott McGarity, owner of McGarity’s Business Products, said he has seen industry trends shift from that of the more traditional office chair to either ergonomic chairs, which are created to form to individuals’ bodies, or to the height-adjustable desks.

“More and more people are investing in these,”he said. “People are looking to be able to sit and to stand. Let’s say after lunch, you might want to take a break and stand for awhile. So, you just hit a button, and your desk raises. That’s very common now as companies buy new furniture. The whole concept is to get some movement.”

If sit-to-stand desks are not an option, then many customers opt for an ergonomic chair, McGarity said. His most popular chair, as well as his personal chair of choice, is the Zody, an adjustable chair made by the Hayworth company.

“We’ve had tremendous success with these chairs,” McGarity said.

This is a good sign, Kriston said. She recommends workers employed in a sedentary role seek an ergonomic chair.

“(It’s) recommended that you sit in a chair with good lumbar support with proper position and height for the task,” she said. “You should keep your shoulders back and not in a hunched position. Switch positions in your chair every hour, or get up and walk around and come back.”

She added workers should no longer sit at a 90-degree angle.

“It’s better to sit at a 135-degree angle,” Kriston said. “Back when I went to school, I was always taught that people needed to sit up straight. That has been proven wrong. Leaning back a little bit reduces the pressure on the discs in the back and the strain on the muscles.”

This not only will help alleviate back pain, but it also increases blood flow to the legs, reducing the risk of blood clots and other serious medical issues. Additionally, it helps increase an employee’s focus and attention. This is nothing but good news for the workforce, Levine said.

“This is about hard-core productivity. You will make money if your workforce gets up and gets moving. Your kids will get better grades if they get up and get moving,” he said. “The science is not refuted.”

Furthermore, he adds, the dangers are real.

“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting,” he said. “We are sitting ourselves to death.”


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