Is Sitting is the New Smoking?

Most graduate students are worried about surviving the daily grind of graduate school: attending graduate seminars, writing research papers, meeting deadlines, taking comprehensive exams, proposing and defending their dissertation, teaching undergraduate courses, and getting a job, to name a few. All of these concerns are important and, indeed, all are vital to succeeding in graduate school.

One thing most graduate students may not be worried about, though, is sitting. We sit all the time. We sit while in seminars. We sit while writing papers. We sit while searching for research articles. We sit while reading research articles. We sit while grading. We sit while attending academic talks. You get the point.

Why should we be concerned about sitting? Research is starting to suggest that sitting increases the risk for a variety of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancers. Indeed, sitting may be considered the new smoking. A meta-analysis, published in 2013, concluded that a higher amount of daily sitting time is associated with a higher risk of all cause mortality (Chau et al., 2013), meaning that the more time you spend sitting, the greater chance you have of developing a chronic disease.

A more recent meta-analysis, published in 2015, also found that a prolonged amount of time sitting is associated with negative health outcomes, and that this relationship exists independent of physical activity levels (Biswas et al., 2015). In other words, the more time you spend sitting each day, the higher risk you have for a variety of health complications and diseases, regardless of whether or not you also exercise regularly. So, even if you do manage to find time during graduate school to exercise, if you sit all day, you’re still at an increased risk.

As I mentioned, as graduate students, we sit all the time. It may seem like I’m just telling you we’re all doomed – how are we supposed to get all of our work done, without spending most of the time sitting? The solution? Standing desks!

Standing desks are desks that are elevated to standing level, which thereby don’t require a chair (I realize I’ve committed a tautological error by defining a term using the term – deal with it). By using a standing desk, we can still write papers, search for research articles, read research articles, grade, and otherwise engage in all of our graduate student work, without incurring the negative health risks of remaining sedentary all day (and unfortunately for some, all night).

Several companies have made special desks that are specifically designed to be standing desks, and, with some models, you are even able to electronically raise and lower the desk to whatever height suits your fancy. These desks, however, can be really expensive. Unless your graduate student stipend leaves enough left over for you to spend hundreds, or even thousands, on a new desk, here are a few tips for some less expensive options:

  1. File boxes. I’ve been a graduate student for almost four years now (I’m almost finished 20th grade!), which means I’ve accumulated enough notes, papers, and articles to fill quite a few file boxes. At the office, I’ve stacked my file boxes on top of my desk to standing height. I can then place my laptop, notes, etc. on top, and voilà! I now have a (virtually free) standing desk!

  2. Wall-mounted table desk. A “wall-mounted table desk” is a desk that is made out of a “wall-mounted table” (tautology be damned!). Ikea has a great, $40 wall-mounted drop-leaf table that comes in a variety of colors. You can attach the table to the wall at whatever standing height works best for you! I use this table as a standing desk at home, and, as a bonus, you can drop the desk down when not in use to save room in your sure-to-be-small graduate student housing. I am sure a lot of companies sell similar products, but here is the link to the Ikea wall-mounted drop-leaf tables.

  3. Drafting table. A drafting table is a large table, traditionally used for drawing or sketching on large paper (think architecture). This option is a little bit more expensive, but provides you with more working room. You can also manually raise the height of the table up and down, which is especially useful if you plan to share the desk. My boyfriend uses this particular model from Amazon, but most any drafting table should function similarly.

It can take a few days, or even a couple weeks, to become comfortable standing all day and working at an elevated desk, but once you do, you’ll forget you’re standing at all.

References

Biswas, A., Oh, P. I., Faulkner, G. E., Bajaj, R. R., Silver, M. A., Mitchell, M. S., & Alter, D. A. (2015). Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 162(2), 123-132.

Chau, J. Y., Crunseit, A. C., Chey, T., Stamatakis, E., Brown, W. J., Matthews, C. E…& van der Ploeg, H. P. (2013). Daily sitting time and all-cause mortality: A meta-analysis. PLoS ONE, 8(11), e80000. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0080000