Sitting is Making You Fat and Killing You

code, personal, tech 0 comments suggest edit

As a kid, I was an impatient little brat. On any occasion that required waiting, I became Squirmy Wormy until I pushed my dad to make the demand parents so often make of fidgety kids, “Sit still!

Recent evidence suggests a rejoinder to kids today in response to this command, “What!? Are you trying to kill me?!

There is compelling evidence that modern workers propensity to sit for prolonged periods every day makes them fat and shortens their lives. Hmmm, you wouldn’t happen to know any professions where sitting limply at a desk for long periods of time is common, would you?

Yeah, me too.

This spurred me to learn more which led me to The Daily Infographic’s great summary of this research. Seriously, click on the image below. I could have stopped there and called it a post. But as always, I don’t know when to stop.


Much has been written about the detrimental health effects of inactivity. According to Marc Hamilton, a biomedical researcher, sitting down shuts off your fat burning.

Physiologists analyzing obesity, heart disease, and diabetes found that the act of sitting shuts down the circulation of a fat-absorbing enzyme called lipase.

The same Hamilton goes into more details in this interesting NY Times article on the potential lethality of prolonged sitting,

This is your body on chairs: Electrical activity in the muscles drops — “the muscles go as silent as those of a dead horse,” Hamilton says — leading to a cascade of harmful metabolic effects. Your calorie-burning rate immediately plunges to about one per minute, a third of what it would be if you got up and walked.

In other words, sitting down is the off button.

This LifeHacker article points out that the the long term health effects of sitting multiple hours a day go way beyond weight gain.

After 10-20 Years of Sitting More Than Six Hours a Day

Sitting for over six hours a day for a decade or two can cut away about seven quality adjusted life years (the kind you want). It increases your risk of dying of heart disease by 64 percent and your overall risk of prostate or breast cancer increases 30 percent.

I want all kinds of life years, but the “quality adjusted” variety sounds extra special.

You might think that you’ll be just fine because you exercise the recommended 30 minutes a day, but a study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine notes that’s not the case.

Even if people meet the current recommendation of 30 minutes of physical activity on most days each week, there may be significant adverse metabolic and health effects from prolonged sittingthe activity that dominates most people’s remaining “non-exercise” waking hours.

That’s particularly disheartening. All that other exercise you do might not counteract all the prolonged sitting.

Get up, stand up! Stand up for your code!

With apologies to Bob Marley

So what’s a developer to do? Note that these studies put an emphasis on prolonged. The simple solution is to stop sitting for prolonged periods at a time. Get up at least once an hour and move!

But developers are interesting creatures. We easily get in the zone on a problem and focus so deeply that three hours pass in a blink. Ironically this wasn’t a problem I faced as a Program Manager since I was moving from meeting to meeting nearly every hour.

But in my new job, writing code at home, I knew I needed more than an egg timer to tell me to move every hour. I want to move constantly if I can. For example, the way you do when you stand. So I looked into adjustable desks.

According to Alan Hedge, director of Cornell’s Human Factors and Ergonomics laboratory, workers fare better when using adjustable tables (emphasis mine).

We found that the computer workers who had access to the adjustable work surfaces also reported significantly less musculoskeletal upper-body discomfort, lower afternoon discomfort scores and significantly more productivity,” said Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell and director of Cornell’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory.

So I went on a quest to find the perfect adjustable desk. How did I choose which desk to purchase?

dodecahedron \ Critical hit! Photo by disoculated from Flickr Ok, not quite. I might have put in a little more research into it than that.

I asked around the interwebs and received a lot of feedback on various options. I found two desk companies that stood out: Ergotron and GeekDesk.

Initially, I really liked the Ergotron approach. Rather than a motorized system for moving the desk up and down, it has a clever quick release lever system that makes it easy to adjust the desk’s height quickly without requiring any tools or electricity.

For this reason, I initially settled on the Workfit-D Sit Stand Desk. Unfortunately, Ergotron is a victim of its own success in this particular case. They were backordered until our sun grows into a red giant and engulfs the planet and I couldn’t wait that long.

So I ended up ordering the GeekDesk Max. This desk uses a motor to adjust to specific heights, but has four presets. This is important because without the presets, you’re sitting there holding the button until it reaches the height you want. While the motor is slower than the Ergotron approach, with the presets, I can just hit the button and go get a coffee. To be fair, it’s not all that slow. Did I mention I’m impatient?

I’m very happy with this desk. Here’s a photo of my workspace that I sent to CoderWall with the desk in a standing configuration.


If you are looking for a more inexpensive option, I recently learned about this Adjustable Keyboard Podium that seems like a good option. Jarrod, a StackOverflow developer, uses it in his office.

As far as I can find, there’s only one study that points to a potential negative health impact from standing at work.

Significant relationships were found between the amount of standing at work and atherosclerotic progression.

However, as you might expect, this one study is not conclusive and doesn’t focus solely on the work habits of office workers who stand. From what I can tell so far, the health benefits far outweigh the detriments assuming you don’t over do it.

If you do stand at work, I highly recommend getting some sort of gel or foam padding to stand on. Especially if you’re not wearing shoes. The hard floor might seem fine at first because you’re a tough guy or girl, but over the course of a day, it’ll feel like someone’s taken a bat to your soles.

Also, vary it up throughout the day. Don’t stand all day. Take breaks where you work sitting down and alternate.

Fight malaise!

Not every developer is the same, clearly. Some are fit, but many, well, let’s just say that the health benefits mentioned in this post might not factor into their decision making.

James Levine, a researcher at the Mayo clinic, had a more philosophical point to make about sitting all day that goes beyond just the physical health benefits. He also sees a mental health benefit.

For all of the hard science against sitting, he admits that his campaign against what he calls “the chair-based lifestyle” is not limited to simply a quest for better physical health. His is a war against inertia itself, which he 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 said. “The soul of the nation is sapped, and now it’s time for the soul of the nation to rise.”

In other words, stop sitting and write better code! Go forth and conquer.

Found a typo or error? Suggest an edit! If accepted, your contribution is listed automatically here.



28 responses

  1. Avatar for David Levitt
    David Levitt July 20th, 2012

    Did I sleep through our sun growing into a red giant and engulfing the sun?? Probably all the sitting I'm doing ;)

  2. Avatar for David Levitt
    David Levitt July 20th, 2012

    Er...engulfing the planet...sorry for the misquote ;)

  3. Avatar for haacked
    haacked July 20th, 2012

    Ha! Well I did the research a long time ago. So they're in stock now. And how does the sun engulf the sun anyways? :P

  4. Avatar for haacked
    haacked July 20th, 2012

    Ah, you corrected it as I was making fun of your mistake. ;)

  5. Avatar for Jason
    Jason July 20th, 2012

    My friend made this little app that reminds you to stretch. pretty handy to remind you to get up regularly.

  6. Avatar for Dan M
    Dan M July 20th, 2012

    I've seen this research come up a lot recently, and there may very well be something to it, but it does seem like some grand conclusions are being reached by a lot of correlational evidence. It's sort of like saying, Japanese people smoke more than we do, and they live longer than us, so smoking must be healthy.
    Even if the correlation is proven to be causation, what does it mean when they say "sitting 6 hours a day makes you up to 40% likelier to die within 15 years than someone who sits less than 3"? They don't mention the odds of dying if you avoid sitting, so it comes across as a bit alarmist. Let's say that the odds of a 30 year-old dying in the next 15 years are 1/1000 or 0.1%. If you sit all day at work, then your odds of dying would be 0.14% (again, assuming sitting really is the cause). That's still a sizable increase, but not quite as dramatic as the "40% increase" would have you believe.
    My final issue is that they appear to control for exercise (which is good), but they don't seem to control for body weight. Instead, they claim that sitting is a *cause* of high body weight. The mechanistic arguments that sitting reduces electrical activity, calorie burning, fat-burning enzyme production, and insulin effectiveness gives some credence to the argument that sitting directly contributes to obesity, but it's difficult to tease apart whether it's purely a matter of calories-in calories-out, or whether sitting actually adds something on top of that equation.
    All that said, these studies are all about population averages. What matters is you. If you are experiencing any ergonomic discomfort from sitting all day, taking more breaks and sitting less total time are no-brainers. If you are overweight, doing something that burns more calories than sitting is also a no-brainer. If you are fit, exercise more than 30 minutes average per day, have good cholesterol, have good energy levels, and yet still find yourself sitting for 8+ hours a day, I wouldn't panic.

  7. Avatar for Kurt
    Kurt July 21st, 2012

    Phil, I think I remember you tweeting a while back about your geekdesk motor malfunctioning. Care to comment on that? I've been eyeing a geekdesk for a while but was a little concerned about its durability.
    I'm glad to see you still ultimately recommend it. Thanks for the post!

  8. Avatar for haacked
    haacked July 21st, 2012

    @Kurt I just needed to reset it. After that, it worked great. You just hold some buttons down for a few seconds. It's on their FAQ somewhere.

  9. Avatar for MikeR
    MikeR July 21st, 2012

    +1000 to DanM

  10. Avatar for timheuer
    timheuer July 21st, 2012

    Does the geek desk have a power supply on the desk so that when the height adjusts my cords aren't getting dragged up/down?

  11. Avatar for Al
    Al July 21st, 2012

    I wonder how many of these health-related issues are caused by people putting off bathroom breaks for too long? Seriously, I'd buy into maybe leg circulation issues, back problems, stiffness, carpal tunnel, and similar but cutting quality years off a person's life??? I would like to find out what stress these people are under that they are sitting for 6 hours straight in the workplace. There certainly are mitigating circumstances. That said, I'm one of those people that eats standing up. I also like to use my laptop when I'm on the treadmill. Still, I doubt I'm adding any quality years to my life by the former and maybe not even the latter (short of toning some muscles).

  12. Avatar for haacked
    haacked July 21st, 2012

    Timheurr: yep! It's well designed.

  13. Avatar for Andrei Rînea
    Andrei Rînea July 22nd, 2012

    Good advice Phil!
    I would like to add something : I use for some time a small freeware app called WorkRave which urges me to take breaks and also suggest physical exercises.
    I have no benefit in providing the details for this app, I am mentioning it just because it helped me and hope it will help others too.

  14. Avatar for Tim Murphy
    Tim Murphy July 22nd, 2012

    With my bad arthritic knees a stand up desk is not an option.
    I've been using for some months now. It's great for productivity, concerntration and making sure I move on a regular basis.

  15. Avatar for Steve Sheldon
    Steve Sheldon July 22nd, 2012

    Real brogrammers do it at Starbucks.

  16. Avatar for Justin
    Justin July 23rd, 2012

    I've been thinking of getting a standing desk for a while. I have not been comfortable with sitting for such long periods. I have joint and back pain most days and am very stiff most mornings when getting out of bed. Thanks for sharing this article, Phil.

  17. Avatar for Elijah Manor
    Elijah Manor July 23rd, 2012

    Nice post man. I ran across the Ninja Standing Desk the other day... hey, that might have been from you! Anyway, it looks like a good way to get started that isn't too expensive and that is flexible. I guess the biggest downside would be the 2 external monitors that I have ;)

  18. Avatar for kamranayub
    kamranayub July 23rd, 2012

    At work we are lucky because in some redesigned areas we have standing desks available for anyone, first-come, first-serve. A couple people in the traditional "cube" areas lift their laptops and monitors on makeshift printer paper stacks to emulate a standing desk. I'd feel more comfortable standing up at home, but I don't have a standing desk there either.

  19. Avatar for Allen Conway
    Allen Conway July 23rd, 2012

    Great article. Did I miss something because Amazon does indeed have in stock (not too many, but some) the Ergotron desk you wanted:

  20. Avatar for Chris
    Chris July 23rd, 2012

    DanM is completely correct. While there may be some benefit from stretching and standing occasionally, it's probably fairly alarmist to draw some of the conclusions that we tend to see on this topic.
    There was a good discussion on reddit about this awhile ago and they pretty much came to the same conclusions that DanM did.

  21. Avatar for Derek
    Derek July 24th, 2012

    After looking at all these fancy adjustable desks for months and dreading shelling out hundreds of £ I stumbled upon this at Ikea - Turns out to be the perfect height for me. I put a different top on it to the recommended one and I have plenty of room for 3 big monitors. I got a bar stool that I sit on from time to time, but mostly standing is great!

  22. Avatar for Darrenk
    Darrenk July 25th, 2012

    How does kneeling at your desk figure into this? Obviously some sort of rest for the knees would be necessary, but is it any better for you in general?

  23. Avatar for Bonzo Gillespie
    Bonzo Gillespie August 1st, 2012

    ...complete with links to SPAM sez wot?

  24. Avatar for balls
    balls August 10th, 2012

    How about those big exercise balls?

  25. Avatar for Fikret
    Fikret August 22nd, 2012

    Swimmers have a way of correcting posture. I practice YTWL exercise during my pomodoro breaks as shown at (

  26. Avatar for @rjmcAssey
    @rjmcAssey August 28th, 2012

    I just finished my first day with the IKEA hacked version. Here's a pic of how it turned out:!/rjmcAssey/media/slideshow?
    Pretty sweet and cheap getup - grabbed a side table from IKEA and bolted a shelf to the front for the keyboard. Might grab a laptop stand as well. (instructions:
    I stood the whole day yesterday, which did a number on my ligament strain from earlier this summer. My shoes also have no sole support so I need to pick up a mat/insoles. However, I love it. I plan on alternating every other hour or so from now on. It appears that both too much standing and too much sitting have detrimental effects - the key is alternation.

  27. Avatar for Steven
    Steven September 19th, 2012

    Hey Phil,
    I really enjoyed this Google talk given by Physical Therapist Kelly Starrett:
    He states that sitting and standing are actually high skill activities that need to be trained. The video may be long but it is a great investment of time for anyone having ergonomic issues.

  28. Avatar for joey
    joey January 15th, 2013

    The video may be long but it is a great investment of time for anyone  ..