Kjrsten Abel Ruch and Pam Heikes were both standing on a recent day at work. That wouldn't be out of the ordinary at a factory or warehouse, but they work at an office, where they spend most of the day looking at a computer screen.
The Douglas County Extension staffers are among office employees — in Lawrence and across the country — who are choosing to stand rather than sit or use other ergonomically friendly methods to avoid chronic pain and stiffness and otherwise improve their health.
This trend follows growing research showing that sitting for extended of periods negates exercising later in the day and that many work-related injuries are caused by repetitive actions rather than acute incidents like falls. Some office employees now have treadmill desks that move at a snail's pace but keep the body active; others sit on exercise balls to prevent slouching and strengthen their core muscles.
Kim King, a physical therapist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, tries to help local employers and individuals prevent disorders like tendinitis, carpel tunnel and tennis elbow before they happen, as 60 percent of workers compensation cases are the result of cumulative trauma disorders like poor posture and bad body mechanics.
She gives ergonomics evaluations at about one or two Lawrence workplaces a week, giving employees tips on how to make their work stations more ergonomically friendly. Among her recommendations are to sit with your elbows, knees, hips and feet at 90-degree angles; make sure your computer screen is at or below eye level; and take micro-breaks — get up, walk around, stretch — every 20 minutes.
Several recent studies have highlighted the danger of sitting for lengthy periods of time, finding that the longer people sit, the greater their risk of dying prematurely, even if they exercise regularly. Extended sitting has been shown to slow the body's metabolism, increasing the chances of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. A Mayo Clinic specialist compared the cardiac damage from sitting most of the day with that of smoking.
King also calls laptops an "ergonomic nightmare" and suggests putting them on a monitor stand and using a separate keyboard to keep forearms parallel to the floor and arms relaxed and at your sides. In addition, she recommends employers buy the right equipment from the get-go rather than having to replace it down the line.
"We're not a one-size-fits-all society," she said. "Some chairs fit smaller people better; some fit taller people. We shouldn't order a chair just because it's a good price; we should order it because it's the right chair."
Kristen Walker, who works in the corporate compliance office at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, has been sitting on a balance ball every day for the last two and a half years — and couldn't imagine life without it. She no longer suffers from the back or hamstring problems she had from sitting in a regular office chair, the latter the result of her feet not being long enough to reach the floor.
"I definitely know that I'm in better shape simply because I'm subconsciously forced to engage my muscles rather than sitting and slumping," she said, calling it "exercising without actually exercising." "Whether you realize it or not, you are constantly moving, rocking backward and forward."
She said the balance ball also causes her to stretch more and get up and walk over to her colleagues rather than rolling over on a chair. She believes the ball also helps strengthen her core muscles, makes her more aware of her posture and improves her focus and concentration.
Stand and deliver
Abel Ruch, the 4-H program coordinator at Douglas County Extension, had been an active person for much of her life, playing sports like rugby. But after getting a full-time job, she ran into a problem that many young professionals struggle with: the transition to a sedentary life.
She started suffering from shoulder and hip pain, eventually realizing it was being caused by the way she sat at her desk. While searching the Internet, she found a stand — $175 from Amazon.com — she could put her laptop on that allowed her to be on her feet at work.
"I feel I'm more productive when I stand up — it's hard to be lazy when you're standing," she said. "I have also better posture, and my back and shoulder don't bother me as much as they used to."
After Heikes saw Abel Ruch start standing in December, she thought doing so might help relieve the neck, back and shoulder pain she had been experiencing. In her role as the front-desk office professional at the extension office, she has sat for much of the past 15 years. She had tried switching office chairs on numerous occasions to relieve her issues, but nothing worked.
Earlier this year, she found a contraption online — about $400 from JustStand.org — that allowed her to move her computer monitor up and down and side to side.
Since getting the standing desk in April, Heikes hardly sits anymore, estimating that she's on her feet about 75 percent of the time now. She has also had less neck and shoulder pain, and she's felt less drowsy at work.
Recent studies have revealed that the majority of U.S. office employees wish they didn't spend most of their working hours sitting, say they would be more productive if they could work on their feet, and wished their jobs offered desks that gave them the option of sitting or standing. These local examples show that, with a little initiative, employees can come up with their own solutions.
"We're starting to become more health conscious as a society," said Abel Ruch, "and we're trying to do it on our own rather than having it force fed."