This is a story of my sit-stand desk, and how I got to that aspect of better work-health balance by default. And about the contribution of my treadmill reading-walking time, again by default. It's also, more broadly, about my intermittent efforts to lace intermittent exercise into my day, and how I have failed, repeatedly, because I can't overcome my Type A proclivities.
A few years ago, I began to worry about my long periods working at the computer, without breaks. Well, some breaks, to surf the Web and deal with e-mail, but those didn't feel much different physiologically from work. I live rurally, but the walks at noon in good weather had disappeared. In some ways, this lack of balance was ironically a result of greater balance: the more I squeezed into my life, responding more freely to non-work opportunities, the more intense my work time became.
So I put a prompt in my computer for 10:30 a.m. to remind myself to take a few minutes to do a Taoist Tai Chi stretching exercise known as the tor yu, figuring that I would repeat it again at least twice more during the work day and improve my health.
Simple, neat – and completely ineffective, as it turned out.
I liked the exercise itself and the idea of a break, but it never seemed convenient right then. I would snooze the reminder for 10 minutes when it flashed on the screen, delay it again a few times when it resurfaced, advance it to midafternoon, and after brushing it aside in a few more instances, reset it for the next morning. Over the next few months, I probably did Tor Yus during work four to six times, total.
I have it lucky. In the workplace, most people can't easily take a break for exercise, so they don't try. But the only thing standing in my way was me. And that proved insurmountable. Interestingly, in winter, when the same prompt is used to remind me to put wood in our furnace, I might deflect it once because it is inconvenient but rarely twice – and certainly never allow the fire to go out. So I can take mini-breaks, when I think they absolutely are necessary.
I returned to this issue of exercise breaks after reading Tom Rath's stimulating book Eat Move Sleep and interviewing him. First, he pummelled away at my innate defence that given I exercised every morning before work for between 30 and 90 minutes, this failure during the day was relatively inconsequential: "Exercise is not enough. Working out three times a week is not enough. Being active throughout the day is what keeps you healthy."
He insisted that as we sit, bad health festers, with cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure all going in the wrong direction, quite dramatically in small periods of time. This was new to me just 15 months ago when we talked, yet these days the notion that sitting is the new smoking has become a meme, a sign of the gravity of this health challenge and our societal concern.
He recommended two minutes of exercise every 20 minutes. I changed that to 25 minutes, feeling it more plausible, set up my prompt again, and was more successful. I dabbled in different elements of tai chi, but usually settled on a squat-like exercise where I just had to let gravity do its job – 35 at a time. I brushed aside the prompt many times, of course, but I also responded dutifully more times, inspired by a buddy, a professor of literature, who was similarly roused and would send me e-mail asking when I had last exercised.
But then, my commitment started to wane. Type A was winning. Mr. Rath wrote his book on a treadmill and when I had interviewed him he was pedalling on a Fit Desk, a combo desk and small cycle. I wasn't inclined to write on a treadmill but decided to buy a second-hand treadmill and test out reading on it. Now most evenings, I read for 60 to 90 minutes on the treadmill – tablet great, newspaper reasonably good, books with decent-sized type that I don't have to mark up or take notes on, also fine.
So, progress, but still not answering his call – and my own call, from before I saw his book – to exercise repeatedly during the day. Wellness coach Kent Burden rekindled the issue a few months ago when I interviewed him. He said exercising every 20 minutes was impractical, so he suggested a few minutes every hour instead. He recommends micro-exercises at our desks, with a series of ideas in his two books for people trapped in an office but eager to gain movement fairly unobtrusively. So I started again, every hour or so, but the "or so" was winning – well, the "or never" was winning.
He recommends an under-the-desk, seat-less exercise cycle and I considered that but it didn't fit seem to fit my desk configuration. Instead, I decided to heed his much costlier advice about an Ergotron sit-stand desk, which allows you to choose to sit or stand as you work. That seemed a sensible way to accept my Type A nature, and also keep the body more active. He stresses that a standing desk brings with it some health problems; you want to be able to mix sitting and standing, which is what I am now doing, probably 80 per cent of the day standing.
From the first time I tried it, my body just felt more invigorated – blood circulating better, more alert, and as a bonus, posture improved. I was worried that it would be difficult to adjust the desk but it changes positions like a charm, perhaps because I am going to the top and bottom positions (a tall person might have difficulty). And I was surprised at how easily I adjusted, work not seeming to be affected by whether I was standing or sitting – perhaps an advantage of being focused, Type A.
After interviewing Mr. Burden, I talked with Minneapolis-based exercise physiologist Jenny Evans, who similarly encourages exercise throughout the day. She calls for a 10-10-10 program – 10 minutes of exercise three times a day. Coincidentally, my tai chi club in Kingston has started a 5-5-5 program, encouraging 15 minutes of personal practice daily in 2015, perhaps in three slices of five minutes. I do more than that already, but it's another chance to intermix exercise through the day. I know the odds are against me –– or my Type A personality is against me – but I'm trying again, buoyed by the fact that my treadmill and sit-stand desk have at least been improvements.
And if this story seems it's about me, it's also about you.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.