San Jose Mercury News: Julie Chang (7/17/2010) While New York City is the city that never sleeps, Silicon Valley is — unfortunately — famous for cities that always sit.
From the comatose software programmers sporting computer screen facial tans to the countless engineers who can't remember the last time they used their gut-obscured feet to walk away from their mice and keyboards, the creators of the world's most innovative technology may be paying a deadly price for digital success.
Researchers and engineers from across the world convened at Stanford University on Friday for a two-day conference on the serious health risks of prolonged sitting — or what they term inactive physiology. Preliminary research has shown that long-term sedentary behavior caused by desk jobs, driving and watching TV can lead to obesity, diabetes and even some kinds of cancer — sure to be a hypochondriac's nightmare. Scientists urge taking caution before partaking in such butt-numbing activities.
"What we know so far is sedentary behavior has a strong relationship with metabolic functions," said Neville Owen, a visiting professor from The University of Queensland in Australia who has done research on sitting. "Even if people go out for a walk or a jog, that would only be half an hour. That's only a tiny part of the day. Sitting does its nasty work."
Hosted by the Stanford Center on Longevity and Stanford Prevention Research Center, the brainstorming conference encouraged guests to stand, walk or sit on bright red exercise balls or confusing European kneeling chairs scattered strategically across the room as an alternative to sitting. Although a handful of the researchers who study sedentary behavior chose to sit, more than 75 percent of the room proved that sitting does not have to be "that killer" in a working environment.
"Early on in the conference, we said, culturally, it's absolutely fine to get up and shift around "... to get on an exercise ball. It's not going to be a sign of disinterest or disrespect. And it's been interesting to watch that people have been doing it relatively freely without it disrupting the flow of the conference," said Ken Smith, researcher at the center on longevity.
The average adult spends 9.3 hours — 63 percent of their waking hours — sitting, most of which occurs at work. Ways people can defy lethargy in the office include standing while talking on the phone, scheduling frequent and short breaks or walking over to a co-worker's desk rather than shooting an e-mail.
Or if companies really want to cough up the dollars to ensure the health — or, rather, survival — of their employees, cubicles across the country can become homes to the WalkStation (or the more affordable TrekDesk), an office desk which doubles as a treadmill. Marketed by a Michigan-based company that also distributes out of Milpitas, the steroid-raging desk costs nearly $4,600—chair neither included nor recommended.
If biking tickles your fancy, the same company also has introduced a desk that features a stationary bike.
But scientists say there's no need to break the bank with these mutant devices; simply keeping conscious and aware of one's sedentary behavior — and doing something about it — should be sufficient.
"A good thing is to see if you can avoid too much time in your car. If you can, use public transportation or ride a bicycle," said Owen. "At work, get out of the habit of everything being focused on the computer screen. Go find ways to put a bit more social interaction back into what you do at work."