Print Edition - 2015-10-13 | News
Why can’t we sit still anymore?
- With everyone sprinting along, it’s hard to remember that sitting down properly was once considered a virtue
Oct 13, 2015-
YOU know that uneasy feeling you get when someone is looming over you? I have it right now, multiplied by four. Only the hoverers aren’t doggedly trying to get my attention; they couldn’t care less. They’re beavering away behind standing desks. In my department alone, four people have installed these towers of productivity in the last month.Plopped down in my stationary chair, hands on keyboard, eyes glazed on screen, I, in my turpitude, provide a sad contrast to the action-packed industriousness around me. Everywhere, people are standing, walking and working in double time. Untethered from phone cords and wires, hands are busy with stress balls, O-rings, even “executive sandboxes.”Between treadmill desks, rolling ball chairs, swinging footrests and squishy cushions, the idea that a person should sit still seems to have taken a hike.
“Get up!” we are exhorted instead. Climb the stairs, stretch every 10 minutes, stroll around the block. Better yet, stand all day. For reasons ergonomic, exercise driven and energy positive, society’s message from the moment a toddler manages an upright position seems to be: Keep moving, bouncing and fiddling all the way into adulthood and (may it never come) old age. Wiggly kids grow up to become college students who tote their tippy stools to the dorm and then storm the workplace with active desks, zipping along an occupational therapy continuum.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this frenzy of dynamism is that screen culture was meant to slow us all down to a slothlike halt. According to the dystopic vision of Pixar’s 2008 film “Wall-E,” at some point before the iPhone 8 we’d all be reduced to immobilized deposits of screen-stupefied flesh.
Instead, sitting has gone from something responsible and orderly to something borderline unseemly. Sitting makes you slump, sitting makes you fat, sitting makes you lazy. (Or are you lazy for even wanting to?) Sit down now and—sorry to report—you may never get up. According to urgent studies from the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sitting is nothing short of deadly. Forbes’s website calls upon readers to “fight sitting disease” and offers a slide show of “6 Desks to Save You From Death by Sitting.” Time magazine recently warned, “Sitting Is Sabotaging Your Health,” and posted a handy guide to “deskercize.”
According to the C.D.C.’s Take-a-Stand project, 87 percent of employees who transitioned to a sit-to-stand workstation said they felt more energized, 66 percent felt more productive and 75 percent felt healthier over all. Switch to a standing position, claims the website for Varidesk, one of many active desk manufacturers, and “pretty soon, you’re energized, focused, free of back pain and burning calories like crazy—all while getting things done.”
Standing desks are pervasive enough that their particular fashion requirements are concern enough to merit coverage in The Times’s Styles section. C.E.O.s are photographed huffing at their treadmill desks as if ready at any moment to take off directly from executive suite to private jet. Bookish types can stand tall like Philip Roth or march ahead like Susan Orlean.
With everyone sprinting along, it’s hard to remember that sitting down properly was once considered a virtue. According to a new biography of Queen Elizabeth, as a child the princess was forced to sit for hours on end, unable to go to the loo; if she didn’t fidget, she got a cookie.
Even plebeian youths were expected to sit while eating, learning and listening to grown-ups. Munro Leaf’s 1946 children’s book, “How to Behave and Why,” instructed kids on the importance of “sitting and standing right,” the latter primarily in the execution of greetings and pledges of allegiance. Irritated elders were constantly admonishing one to “Stay put” and “Stop fussing,” terrifying anyone tempted to jiggle a leg into statuelike submission. Today, movie scenes in which children are chastised for freeing an errant pinkie in church or refusing to sit through dinnertime look as unenlightened as belt lashings.
The expectation that children need to move their bodies is so ingrained in contemporary pedagogy that teachers will happily pass out a “fidget”—a plaything to occupy busy hands—to any student with twitchy fingers. In classrooms, chairs riveted to desks have been replaced with all manner of “active seating”—cushions, rocking chairs, rolling balls, wobble stools—both for children with A.D.H.D. and for others who simply have trouble staying put.
For many children, of course, an issue with nervous regulation, a sensory processing disorder or simply a passing stage in neurological development can make sitting still a physical challenge, if not an impossibility. And a friendly new vocabulary describes children on the antsy side. Kids aren’t hyper or restless or naughty; they are active learners, physical, very busy. Good behavior isn’t about sitting still—it’s about “being steady” and “attending,” even if that entails a little wiggle and squirm.
Luckily, the modern workplace awaits—ready, set, go for those on the move and shake. And with closed-door offices largely replaced by cubicle dens and shared work spaces, all this capering about is fully endorsed and on full display. Meanwhile, the still and seated may one day become a scorned minority, the 22nd-century sidewalk smokers, a throwback to a benighted culture.
Cultural doomsayers once feared that people would be hopelessly entranced by the soft glow of the computer screen. Turns out, the real distraction is us.
—©2015 THE NEW YORK
TIMES NEWS SERVICE
Published: 13-10-2015 09:18