We know that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for us, but now it's being blamed for an increased risk of cancer. So what's the alternative?
The possible causes of cancer so exhaustively chronicled by the Daily Mail vary from the narrowly focused (wearing a belt) to the not so easily evaded (being a man or a woman). This week, the Mail pounced on another frighteningly generic cause: sitting down. The dangers of doing so were highlighted in a report from the University of Regensburg in Germany. Drawing on studies involving over four million participants, the authors found a significantly larger risk of bowel, womb and lung cancers among those with the most sedentary lifestyles.
A number of recent pieces have compared sitting down to smoking, an analogy complicated, I would have thought, by the fact that smoking is now usually done while standing up in the rain, outside the back door of the office. But the point is that the cancers and other bad effects of a sedentary life cannot be counteracted by combining a lot of sitting down with a lot of exercise, any more than the effects of heavy smoking can be mitigated by exercise. Sitting down is bad, and there is a strong mood against it.
In the latest Vogue, Susie Forbes, principal at the Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design, enthuses about her treadmill desk, a refinement of the stand-up-sit-down desks (the height can be raised or lowered) now fashionable. Forbes writes that nearly "every basic work function" is perfectly possible "at a speed of between one and two and a half miles an hour". And this month's New Yorker features an article by Dan Kois who, having read that sitting down could be fatal, embarked on a month of standing up. We'll come to his conclusions later.
The evidence that standing is good for you is traced back to research in 1953 that compared the health of bus conductors and bus drivers. Drivers were more than twice as likely as conductors to suffer heart attacks. No one who remembers the old buses will be surprised at this. The conductor was adept at taking fares while the bus cornered sharply, or bounding up the staircase at the back just when you thought they'd forgotten about you and you wouldn't have to pay. He or she delighted in their own physicality, whereas the driver looked miserable in their lonely eminence at the wheel. Of course, the doomed driver had once been a conductor, so it was a case of be careful what you wish for.
Subsequent research has underlined the dangers of sitting. Last year, Dr John Buckley, an exercise physiologist from the University of Chester, conducted a survey in which he asked 10 estate agents to stand up for three hours a day. Their blood glucose levels were lower; their heart rates were faster, so they were burning more calories. Buckley believes that standing helps against cardiovascular disease and cancer, and boosts productivity.
I put it to Buckley that it seemed perverse to stand when you could sit. God gave us buttocks for a reason, presumably. Also, don't organisms naturally seek rest? "We were designed to conserve energy in conditions of feast or famine," he replied. "But now there's no famine, only feast."
In Scandinavia, stand-up-sit-down desks are the norm. But in Britain many shop workers feel the absence of an ordinary chair. Doug Russell, health and safety officer for the shop workers' union, USDAW, told me that "if a job can be done seated, a suitable seat should be provided". This was first laid down in the Office, Shops and Railway Premises Act of 1963, but that seat has to be maintained as fit for purpose (the purpose being to sit on it), which is expensive, hence a shortage of seats, resulting in back and joint pains, varicose veins and extreme fatigue. "It's a perpetual problem," said Russell, who believes that "sitting all day is no worse than standing all day". I told Russell that I marvelled at how women serving at department store beauty counters seemed to stand all the time. I actually scour the stores, looking for a seat, so I can be assured they eventually will be able to sit down. "Yes," sighed Russell, "on the beauty counters it's thought that the assistants should be eye-to-eye with the customers."
Then why not let the customers sit down? I thought of a certain butcher's shop near my boyhood home in York. There was a wooden chair in front of the counter. Once, despatched by my mother to buy a pound of sausages, I sat on it and the butcher said: "Oi, that's not for you." The chair was for old people who, after a lifetime of working in a factory or some other non-sedentary job, were entitled to pursue that humble aspiration of yesteryear: "A nice sit down."
It used to be assumed that anyone sitting down deserved to be sitting down, so there was no particular virtue in standing up. But now there is, and if the medical arguments were not so good, I would argue there was a moral dimension to the pro-standing argument. Actually, I'm going to argue it anyway.
We take a stand, we stand up for what we believe in. We stand up for the judge or headteacher. We stand up a lot in church, albeit tardily for the drearier hymns. A vicar once explained to me that the reason the congregation stands for much of the music at Evensong is that, "It's not a concert." That's also why we don't applaud the choir. You're not meant to be enjoying yourself. On the contrary, you're mean to be mortified. Men – some of them – stand up when a woman enters the room, behaviour originating in medieval codes of chivalry. The person standing is in a position to do some service, such as lighting the lady's fag. We "stand ready" to do things; that is why courtiers stand.
We may suspect some famous standers of seeking the moral high ground. As foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston liked it to be known that he needed a standing desk for the business he conducted in the small hours, otherwise he would fall asleep. Ernest Hemingway showed off to one biographer his "stand-up work place" that "he had fashioned from the top of a bookcase". (An ordinary desk being too effete). Unself-effacing figures such as Philip Roth, Karl Lagerfeld and James Murdoch also use standing desks. Winston Churchill liked to look at galley proofs of his books at a standing desk, but since he also worked lying in bed this is forgivable. (I once asked a doctor whether lying down counted as being "sedentary" along with sitting. "I'm afraid it does," he said.)
Donald Rumsfeld worked at a standing desk, and in response to the news that terrorism suspects were being made to stand for three hours, he responded that he stood for eight every day. Such was the mystique surrounding Rumsfeld's standing that an aide sought to clarify that he didn't stand all the time, like a horse. He would sit when eating in a restaurant, for example.
I am infected with the standing morality, too. I pride myself on not being a couch potato. I don't watch much television. Yes, this is because I prefer going to the pub. But then again I usually stand up at the pub. When I do watch TV, I combine it with useful work such as ironing, and I stand up when doing this. Ironing boards have a low setting so that you can sit down while ironing. But you wouldn't be doing the ironing in the first place if you wanted to sit down while doing it.
But I'm not a standing zealot. I am against those men who not only stand when a woman enters a room, but remain standing until every last damned woman in the room has sat down. Only the other day I was berating a manager of a Holiday Inn because they only had showers and no baths.
I asked Dr Nikki Curtis, a GP with an interest in musculoskeletal medicine, whether we are in danger of over-rating standing. "Sitting is probably the worst thing you can do all day, but standing all day is not going to be good for anyone with lower-back problems or varicose veins. And if you're heart's not working efficiently, blood pooling in the feet and legs can cause swelling and discomfort," she said.
Dan Kois didn't enjoy his month of standing for the New Yorker. He felt socially awkward standing at the back of the cinema. People going to the loo "eye me like I'm a serial killer". He lost weight, gained muscle, but suffered much agony. The key, he concluded, is to combine sitting with standing. Curtis agreed. "There should be options in the workplace so that everyone can stand, sit, walk."
There is agreement that if standing is better than sitting, walking is better than both, which brings me back to Susie Forbes and her treadmill desk. She was applying her walking skills to the pavement when I called. That is to say, she had gone out. But she kindly agreed to let me have a go on her desk. Standing on the thing and pressing the start button, I found myself being carried backwards away from Forbes's laptop. I then remembered to walk. But if the laptop had been mine, I would have been tempted, on receiving a dispiriting email, to stop walking and allow the screen to recede from me. When I asked Forbes how the machine was benefitting her, she said: "Ask me in 20 years' time," which reminded me of the joke by the American comedian Steven Wright: "Hard work pays off in the future. Laziness pays off now."
According to the ergonomists, we will all be walking much more in the future. Meetings will be held on the move. I envisage taxi drivers stalled on Oxford Street – "Can't move for all these bloody meetings"; the entire House of Lords shambling along Whitehall. GM Trevelyan had it right in 1918: "I have two doctors, my left leg and my right leg."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014