Writer’s health: are you sitting comfortably…?

Hemingway at his standing desk.

It’s been three weeks since I started writing the Hemingway way – standing up. There were two reasons. First, I got fed up with sitting down all day long, month after month, year after year. If you’re a full time writer, or have some other desk job, you sit all day every day. With lots of deadlines you barely get out of the house if you’re working from home. You can tell that it’s not good for you because it doesn’t feel good. I then happened to read an interview with Ernest Hemingway in which the interviewer described Hemingway’s workspace:

“It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases—the one against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his bed—that Hemingway has his “work desk”—a square foot of cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and pamphlets. There is just enough space left on top of the bookcase for a typewriter, surmounted by a wooden reading board, five or six pencils, and a chunk of copper ore to weight down papers when the wind blows in from the east window.

A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.” (The Paris Review Interviews)

…and being fed up with sitting down, this sounded rather appealing to me.

The second motivator was an article I read about how sitting down all day is not good for your health even if you go to the gym regularly. The research findings were reported in numerous publications, here’s a couple of them Is sitting bad for you? (Guardian) and Sitting for long periods ‘is bad for your health’ (BBC)

Dr Emma Wilmot said “If a worker sits at their desk all day then goes to the gym, while their colleague heads home to watch TV, then the gym-goer will have better health outcomes. But there is still a health risk because of the amount of sitting they do.” (BBC)

But then standing up all day is not that great for you either. I found an article that said that standing up all day is bad, but sitting down all day is worse (Is prolonged standing at work good or bad?) I think the trick is to take breaks when your feet get tired so you won’t harm them.

Here’s one example of a homemade standing desk by Dan Caccavano (lifehacker.com).

So, three weeks ago I put a small book shelf on my desk to lift to computer higher and started doing my work while standing (got extra space on the desk as well – under the keyboard). By the end of the first week my feet and legs were seriously hurting. It’s like when you go on a holiday, walk around for five days in a row and the soles of your feet start burning – something similar. I had also been suffering from a back pain which I had caused myself by sitting badly for a day eight months ago (while working with two screens I sat with my side to the desk). It was a nerve pain in the lower back, I was told there’s a knot of nerves somewhere around there. This pain usually came and went, on a regular day it was subtle or disappeared after a while but always turned up again turing a holiday when I was walking a lot. We spent a week in Florence (not a place to stay loitering in the hotel) in May and after a couple of days of walking I couldn’t turn or get up from bed, the whole side of my body from waist to knee was paralysed with pain. I recovered after the holiday (after sitting down a lot) and the same thing happened, although not as severe, during a hiking holiday in September.  And, of course, it happened again when I started standing up while writing. I persisted and took sitting breaks, and after two weeks of mostly standing that pain is gone. Yay! There’s no sign of it.

Other advantages of standing up is that I don’t get as cold as sitting down. My study is in the loft, which is the hottest room in summer and the coldest room from autumn to spring. Usually, my fingers and toes would start freezing – I don’t have that anymore. I can also keep the heating down a degree or two (it’s ‘green’ and saves money). The lunch break feels more like a break whereas before it was just moving myself from one chair to another, the same with relaxing in the evening. So, I do recommend standing up instead of sitting down, but have variety: I still take an occasional sitting break when my feet get too tired, and move or walk around a bit while thinking (I feel my focus has improved as well). The first two weeks might cause some discomfort because your legs and back are not used to it, but it will feel a lot better after the second week. It’s worth a try!

This article in Time also recommends variety

“Research shows that you don’t need to do vigorous exercise (e.g., jumping jacks) to get the benefits; just walking around is sufficient. So build in a pattern of creating greater movement variety in the workplace (e.g., walk to a printer, water fountain, stand for a meeting, take the stairs, walk around the floor, park a bit farther away from the building each day).”

Here’s a couple of other reports from former sitters:

Seven months at a standing desk

Switching to a standing desk; thoughts

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