The Importance of an Active Workspace

I, like many people I know, want to seek balance in my life between work, family, and personal health. And yet our culture and habits often keep the three separate.

The workplace is increasingly becoming a voracious consumer of our attention and time. And as it currently exists, the average workplace does little to promote time with our families, more sleep, or physical health.

The corporate world has latched onto the idea that people need to be imprisoned in their chairs all day long to be successful at their jobs. According to a number of experts in IP, sitting burns a lowly one (1!) calorie per hour. Interestingly, a body of science known as Inactivity Physiology (IP) increasingly is highlighting the idea that sitting for long periods of time is a severe hazard to your health and in many ways equivalent to smoking.

This graphic represents how a day looks for an active American working in a corporate setting [1].

“Are You An Exercising Couch Potato?”

This particular group is above average in that 3.5% of them exercises purposefully daily. But take away the exercise and their behavior looks more average. You may think that this group is healthier than people who don’t exercise. Unfortunately they’re victims of the reality that that if you sit for more than four hours per day you have almost the same risks for elevated metabolic disease and diabetes as people who don’t exercise at all.

There are definite barriers for most “workplace warriors” in today’s office culture. The perception is (with some truth) that it’s distracting to change into workout clothes and go somewhere to do physically demanding exercise. And it looks odd to drop and do 20 pushups throughout the day. Also, if a locker room with shower facilities isn’t available there is a discomfort with potentially not looking your best after a workout. Finally, a vast majority of people simply don’t want to work out at work.

This information might get companies thinking about encouraging exercise in the workplace for the sake of their employees’ health and productivity. There is a simple approach they can consider that would boost employees’ metabolism as well as disrupt triglyceride and fat formation to yield fairly dramatic results – both standing and working. As the graphic on the left shows, the simple act of standing will increase your fat utilization and plasma triglyceride uptake by more than three times that of sitting [2].

This is particularly true after a meal as sitting immediately afterwards spikes your triglycerides and reduces fat metabolism. Might there be something to the wisdom of our parents going for walks after dinner?

What To Do?

On the surface, I appear to be in very good physical condition. However, I definitely fell into the “Exercising Couch Potato” group. An intense burst for an hour each morning followed by a lot of sitting throughout my day and evening. In July, after reading a lot of the literature around the field of Inactivity Physiology, it got me thinking about how and why I sat a lot.

First, my environment isn’t set up to easily encourage activity and success in my job as CEO of my startup. Our workplace doesn’t have access to workout facilities and locker rooms. There is a gym across the street but it doesn’t resolve the sitting aspects. It is possible to periodically take walks but I literally work non-stop during the day and it really breaks up my flow to leave my desk and walk around. I usually end up not taking a lunch break and eat at my desk.

However, when I understood that the simple act of standing could potentially double or triple my caloric burn over that of sitting, a solution presented itself. What happened is one of my supremely creative coworkers asked about buying a standing desk. I thought that was a fine idea and said yes. He experimented with a few iterations and finally settled on a fairly inexpensive, effective approach that allowed him to still create his amazing software.

Inspired by this, shortly thereafter I got rid of my desk and installed a standing desk. I immediately noticed that I was physically tired at the end of the day. To me this was a good indicator that my metabolism had increased.

I did find that standing in the same place as the same level all day created some tightness in my lower back. I also wondered if more activity was possible. For example, a treadmill at my desk set to one mile per hour could potentially generate eight miles of walking per day and still allow me to easily type.  But finding the right treadmill would be time consuming and expensive. I decided to think of some simpler ways of adding more activity.

I brought in a rocker board as well as a small blue inflatable plastic exercise disc. The rocker board has been really successful. I rock back and forth on it all day long – both in a side-to-side format as well as front to back. I probably do the equivalent of four to six thousand steps per eight hour day on my board. I definitely can feel an effect from balancing as well. My oblique muscles in my core have tightened up. My balance and leg strength feel improved. My hip flexors and calves are less tight. I am pleasantly physically tired at the end of the day, but less so every day as my physical conditioning improves.

I decided to push things a bit and ordered a 40 lb. weighted vest. I have been experimenting with wearing this vest two to four hours every day. Unsurprisingly, this feels like it has raised the stakes metabolically. If I wear this more than four hours per day I am definitely tired, and my feet are tired if I stand on a hard surface. I’ve found that the inflatable blue disc is nice to stand on and relieves most of the pressure on my feet.

In a month and a half, I have noticed that I am in better physical shape. In my formal gym workouts I am able to do a lot more and I am stronger.

As far as work production, I haven’t noticed any kind of dropoff in my productivity. I also have less anxiety about missing a workout as I know that I will be active at work anyway.

Mentally, I’ve had a big shift. As a manager, it’s changed my ideas of what’s possible within the workplace. This idea that you can segregate movement from workplace needs is misguided. For most of our human history, we’ve gotten a lot done on our feet.

Why can’t we design away the current version of the cubical and incorporate more movement and activity? The corporate environment can be redesigned to create dozens of little points of small physical activity during the day. It has me thinking about what changes I can provide to my work force to give them more opportunities to be physically active and healthier when they are working. In a corporate world where the average healthcare costs per employee are $10,000 per year and increasing at a double-digit rate, creating a work environment where physical work and accomplishing your tasks coexist seems like an idea whose time has come.

Note: Since we posted this blog, a number of people have asked us where we get our standing desks from. We got them from

[1] Marc Hamilton et al. Too Little Exercise and Too Much Sitting: Inactivity Physiology and the Need for New Recommendations on Sedentary Behavior. Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports, 2008

[2] Ibid. Marc Hamilton, PhD.

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