Upper back pain and Mary Anne Lide used to be wary companions. They palled around at work; they hung out at home. Tylenol and Advil might separate them temporarily, but never completely, and rarely long enough.
Then Lide, 54, made a simple change. The difference between life now and then, she says, “is huge.”
Her posture is better. Her legs are stronger. She’s in a better mood. She has more energy. She’s more outgoing. She can’t even remember the last time her back hurt.
To what does Lide owe her newfound self? Pills? Surgery? Hard-core exercise?
No, instead, what she began doing is almost embarrassing in its simplicity: Standing.
“The key is, and I tell this to all my patients, if you sit still, they throw dirt on you,” said Dr. Michael Isaac, director of cardiology quality outcomes at Medical City Dallas Hospital.
Research has long backed him up - most recently, findings from 47 studies on sitting, which were analyzed by the Annals of Internal Medicine and released earlier this year. In a nutshell, the longer you sit every day, the higher your risk of dying prematurely. But every time you raise your bottom from the chair, couch or car seat, you lessen your chances for developing diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease.
A few basics
From the American Cancer Society: Its Cancer Prevention Study II reports that women who sit six or more hours per day have a 37 percent greater chance of dying within 15 years than those who sit half that amount of time. For men, that risk is 17 percent.
More recently, the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention reported an association between more time sitting “during leisure time” and a 10 percent overall higher risk of cancer - specifically, multiple myeloma, ovarian cancer and invasive breast cancer - in women. No similar link was found for men.
From the American Heart Association: Sitting for long periods of time increases the risk of heart failure among men, even among those who exercise regularly.
From the American Diabetes Association: A sedentary lifestyle is linked to a 91 percent increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. In May, the organization sponsored Get Fit Don’t Sit day.
When you stand, explains Carrie Camin, assistant vice president of wellness for Methodist Health System in Dallas, “you’re priming the pump, getting the circulation going. If you’re sitting, you’re not burning calories and you’ll gain weight. Being overweight is a gateway to all kinds of chronic diseases.”
Reuben Miller has always been in good shape. He served in the U.S. Army for five years. He has run the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico and is training for the desert marathon again. His heart is good and his muscles strong, but he has long dealt with back pain, which was exacerbated by long hours in front of the computer in his work as an illustrator and a brand and product designer.
“I realized I tend to lean forward when I’m drawing or typing,” said Miller, 39. “You’re always on your butt. Your shoulders are pushed forward.”
Sitting only worsened the pain. More than once, surgery was an option. But after watching his father’s life go downhill after back surgery, Miller was determined to find alternatives. He started doing research on the dangers of sitting. Five years ago, he bought a small standing desk.
“I love it,” said Miller, who transitioned to a larger desk almost two years ago. “It took me about a month to get used to it. I started out feeling a little soreness, but it was my muscles, not my spine. I stuck it out.”
He now stands about 80 percent of the time, he said. His blood pressure is down; he has “no foggy head.” Any discomfort in his back, hamstrings or quadriceps (which also had been hurting) “100 percent went away when I started standing,” he said.
He also has found one more entirely unanticipated benefit.
“I used to have anxiety issues. Not anymore. I attribute a big part of that to standing,” Miller said.
For Lide, a long day of walking in Spain, where her son was stationed with the U.S. Navy, made her realize the extent of her pain. By day’s end, she “was nearly in tears. I thought I won’t be able to do cool things like this much longer. I’ll stop because I’ll know how much pain I’ll be in.”
She began researching ways to alleviate the pain, and found herself reading more and more about the dangers of sitting. Late last year, she bought an inexpensive, adjustable computer stand and pushed away her chair. Initially, her upper back still hurt, but pain was more muscular than skeletal. After a few weeks though, she was singing standing’s praises.
“I have more energy, less pain,” said Lide, who tends to stand about 70 percent of the time.
Like Miller, she also experienced a surprise benefit to standing.
“I don’t think I realized how much you tend to withdraw when you’re in pain,” she said. “I find I’m much more open and outgoing when I’m not in pain. At work, I’m more sociable and chatty and I attribute that to not having the pain. I’m really happy now, I’m starting to realize.”
Get up and move
You don’t have to have a standing desk to incorporate movement into your day. Here are some suggestions from Isaac and Camin:
Get up and walk, even if your job requires you stay in a sedentary position for eight hours, Isaac said. “If you can’t walk, stand up at a table. When you stand, blood pools in your legs by gravity and your heart has to work to pump it through your body.”
Make movement a priority. “Do you want to be healthy or not?” Isaac asks.
Incorporate movement. Every time your phone rings, stand up, Camin said. Set your watch for every hour, then do something that takes 60 or 120 seconds. Do push-ups against your desk. Walk up and down a flight of stairs. Walk to a colleague’s desk instead of emailing.
Make the most of sitting time. Sit up straight in meetings, Camin said. Raise and lower your heels. Tap your feet. In the car or at your desk, do mini crunches. “You could have abs of steel by the time you get home,” she said.