A week-long habit-changing experiment that cut my pain in half (and more)
Sitting is the new smoking, headlines warned us a decade ago. The standing-desk trend surged. Additional science poured in, complicating the picture.
In my own life for the last two years, there’s been no doubt: I hurt when I sit. Increasing chronic pain has interrupted my work, my hobbies, my sleep and my sanity. And so, for one week, in an effort to shake loose my routines and rewire my brain, I’ve decided to quit sitting, cold turkey.
“That may sound extreme,” I say to my new chiropractor at 10 am on a Tuesday morning in July, explaining my new plan: one full week of absolutely no sitting, followed by a more sustainable segue into a sitting-reduced lifestyle.
“Not at all. If sitting hurts, don’t do it.”
“Well, yes. But it’s tricky,” I say, half-hoping he’ll talk me out of it. “The driving, for example.”
I explain that I ran to get to this appointment — four miles, arriving sweaty and barely in time, having made a wrong turn and run one mile further than I’d planned.
He doesn’t ask how I’ll get back home or any other details, as I expect readers of this blogpost might.
How will I work? Only standing, either at my bar-height kitchen table or at my regular desk. I don’t have a nifty standing desk, but I expect this experiment will convince me whether one is worth buying someday.
How will I eat? Standing, or when it’s time to unwind, reclining on my back or side. The Romans did it, even before Netflix.
What happens when I can’t avoid the car? I plan to curl up (while buckled) in the back, not merely recline in the passenger seat, since experience has shown me that car rides hurt my back worst of all. Mostly, I’ll try to avoid all trips by car.
Are there any exceptions planned? Only one: toilet time. Yes, it would be possible to squat, but I’m giving myself one little pass in this area.
Research confirms that feelings of helplessness only make pain worse. While I’m experimenting, I feel both intellectually curious and more in charge of my destiny.
DAY 1, 12:30 PM:
Back home, I take up position — upright, at counter height — in front of my laptop. Based on my reading this week, I remind myself that standing in place too long might be only marginally better than sitting. A University of Waterloo study found that people who stood for two consecutive hours developed back pain. The ideal ratio, according to that study, is between 1:1 and 3:1, or up to 45 minutes standing to 15 minutes sitting. Good idea for later, but right now, I’m going to be a purist.
2 PM: I can’t do this. Two of my favorite writers, Philip Roth and Virginia Woolf, worked standing up. So did Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, and many others. But I can’t seem to concentrate in a fully upright position, and writing is damn hard enough without toying with one’s routines. Maybe it’s just me. Temperamentally, I may simply be a sitter. But I’m not a quitter.
2:05 PM: Illogical whine-fest over, I remind myself that new habits take time: 66 days on average, according to one study. (Not 21 days, as is commonly believed.)
3 PM: Exhausted already! What a wimp!
5:30 PM: TV time, something I usually do no earlier than 7 or 8 pm, but I’m just too tired and I need to lay down. I find out, also, that while eating a lunch quesadilla while reclining is easy, more elaborate meals are not. I hope my dog finds the feta bits I’m dropping from my dinner salad.
11 PM: My back pain, which has been 5 to 7 (on a subjective 10-point scale) on most days, is at a 9. I toss and turn. So far, instead of saving my back, I’ve made it scream. So much for day one.
Backstory — literally and figuratively
Prior to the onset of pain, I was enjoying the healthiest year of my life. I’d lost more than ten pounds. At the age of 46, I was running farther and faster than I’d ever run. But then, around the time of my 48th birthday, sciatica — something I’d experienced my whole life but never been worried about — became chronic.
Symptoms waxed, waned, and then mysteriously spread to other areas in ways no medical expert has been able to explain. My right calf lost significant muscle mass, though the left remains the same. Pain in my right arm wakes me up at night. Neck cricks have become more common. When my leg doesn’t ache, deep pain in my lower back takes over.
I waited months for an MRI, expecting I’d be whisked off for surgery (while knowing full well that surgery outcomes are suspect). Instead, the opposite happened. My MRI came back with only a few minor trouble spots. I do have disc degeneration, but that’s a normal part of aging, like wrinkles. The good news is I have no serious major nerve damage. The bad news is that neither my physician nor my neurologist have any medical solutions to offer. What I know for sure is this: I haven’t had a pain-free day for more than a year.
For a long time, I felt miffed that my physician didn’t offer me strong pain medications. But given what we now know about opioid over-prescription and the ease of getting hooked, I’m actually grateful she didn’t get me started, especially given this 2018 study that found opioids are no better than acetaminophen and other non-opioids for back pain and chronic arthritis.
I may be frustrated, but I’m far from alone. According to one chiropractor association, half of all working Americans have back pain symptoms each year. Over a lifetime, that figure rises to eighty percent.
Whether it’s the main cause or just one part of the problem, the average Westerner sits for 8 to 13 hours. Sitting has been linked with cancer, heart disease, poor circulation, muscle degeneration, a squashed spine, even a foggier brain.
Until recently, I assumed my active, freelance lifestyle made me an outlier. “My job’s flexible,” I told every doctor who would listen. “I’m a writer, but I’m not chained to a desk. I actually sit less than most people!”
Here’s the thing, though: I’d never kept track. Once I did, I realized that I easily sat ten to twelve hours a day, and possibly more. Half of those hours were at my home office desk. The rest of my sedentary hours were spent in cafes or other public places, at the dining table, in the car, and on the couch watching TV.
I had no idea. When it comes to how long we truly work, sleep, exercise, sit or stand, most people are wildly unreliable in their estimates.
If you read no further, at least do this: audit your sitting time, for a day or even better, for a week. The result may surprise you.
DAY TWO: My latest chiropractor’s hypothesis is that I’ve had pain for so long that my current cellular structure is stuck in a pain rut. I’ll need to find and expand upon rare, pain-free moments by eliminating all triggers, working my way into a pain-free lifestyle, during which my current neurons — myelin sheaths and all — can regenerate under the newer, kinder regime.
2 PM: In the middle of my workday I’ve arranged to meet a new acquaintance for some language tutoring (a side gig) at a local café. My daughter drives me while I curl up in the back seat. On arrival, I have to explain to my new friend and client, “J,” that I have to stand at a counter, rather than sit. I expect this to be a distraction and socially awkward, besides. Instead I find out that J has her own hip and back issues, including scoliosis. After swapping back pain stories, we start our Spanish tutoring session — her sitting, me standing. I mention that if we are going to continue with classes, I may have to stand every time. She’s admirably flexible. No problema.
5–8 PM: Instead of collapsing on the couch early, I continue standing while cooking and then eating in front of the Democratic debates. I’ve figured out I need various stools to prop a foot or knee, shifting frequently. Without lots of small movements, standing can be just as problematic as sitting — a takeaway from the very start of this experiment. Something seems to be working. My back pain is down to a 5.
9 PM: A little horizontal time, finally. While watching clips of comedians riffing on the debates, I realize my pain has continued to drop: 4, 3, 2. I don’t know how long this will last, but I am briefly without any significant discomfort anywhere in my body. I make a cocktail, keep watching Colbert and enthuse to my husband Brian, “I feel like I took some wonder drug!” The sensation is marvelous. I’m actually giddy. I fully expect this ecstatic pain break to be temporary. What matters is that my brain and body are getting to reacquaint themselves with a pain-free state, however briefly. That’s what my chiropractor predicted could happen. I just didn’t fully believe it was possible.
MIDNIGHT: Back to normal, even though I’m horizontal, in bed, with a pain level of perhaps 5 again. I do some late-night reading on calorie burning, noting that in just two days, I’m physically tired, and also strangely hungry. By standing rather than sitting, I might be burning 70 to 400 extra calories a day. Could standing-only become the next Keto?
DAY THREE, 9 AM: I don’t want to get out of bed, because I’m facing an entire day and evening on my feet. From under the covers, I read emails and news longer than usual, knowing I’m sabotaging my work week.
10 AM: Is it weird to admit that going to the bathroom is a wonderful luxury when it’s the only place you’re allowed to sit for a minute?
11 AM: Why don’t people make their own standing desks? Using a paddled ottoman lid, I convert my corner desk into a standing station and get back to the editing work I put off all morning. I’m a genius!
12 PM: Neck pain starting. I’m not a genius. My keyboard’s at the right height but my screen is too low, forcing me to peer down. More tinkering and jerry-rigging ahead. This is why people invest in quality furniture.
3 PM: I’m managing to work on easy tasks with adequate focus, but the pain in on its way back up. As always, it’s hard to remember that breaks are required from any position. I push myself away from the screen and talk myself into trying a meditation. Once I’m on the floor, however, I proceed to text for 20 minutes, relishing the sensation of laying on my stomach. before finally doing a recorded meditation. Here is the crux of the problem: the desire to maintain one position, whatever it is, for longer than is good for a human body.
4 PM: I research several apps and install one (“Stretchly”) on my computer to remind me to stretch quickly every ten minutes — even if it just means twisting or doing knee raises or leg lifts or squats — and take a longer break every thirty. The pop-up reminders are annoying but without them, my tendency toward a fixed position is too risky. When I’m ambitious, I use the longer break to do floor stretches. Back Mechanic author Stuart McGill — plus a bunch of other experts I Google — seem to agree on these two: The bird dog (get on all fours, lift left arm and right leg simultaneously, then right arm and left leg; repeat) and a back bridge (lay on back, raise hips and butt up to form a straight line between knees and shoulders).
Scared Upright: Going to the gym won’t save you
Half-way through my experiment, I need some motivation to keep up with this crazy experiment. Fear will do the trick.
Here’s the grimmest news and the most interesting thing I learned in this entire experiment: sitting all day is bad for you, independent of whether you are otherwise active. That’s worth underlining. You might have seen headlines claiming that sitting can be offset with exercise. A growing body of research says it isn’t so.
More and more, scientists and public health officials are distinguishing between the problem of being sedentary — i.e., too much sitting and lying down — and the problem of being inactive, i.e. not getting exercise. (For the rest of us, “sedentary” and “inactive” are synonymous, but if you’re a public health official, you know better.)
Do you run every night but also binge-watch Netflix? Do you hike on weekends but also spend your week at a desk and log extra hours driving in order to recreate? Me, too. This is very bad news.
Here’s what happens when you sit, independent of your exercise habits.
First, your insulin levels get wonky.
In a single marathon of prolonged sitting (about 17 hours), young, fit, non-obese research subjects experienced a 39% drop in insulin action, which is the ability of the body to make use of glucose following eating, compared to their peers who were allowed to sit a moderate amount (about six hours). Inefficient regulation of blood sugar and hyperglycemia are associated with both serious illnesses and everyday weight gain.
All those donuts you passed up? May not matter if you keep your butt in the chair too long. But we aren’t done with the bad news yet.
According to a UCLA study utilizing brain scans of subjects age 45 to 75, your medial temporal lobe, which is responsible for forming memories, may actually thin. To be more precise, the researchers showed correlation, not causation. But make no mistake: independent of physical activity overall, number of hours spent sitting varies inversely with thickness of this important part of the brain. The mechanism is unknown, but one guess is that sitting affects glycemic control — there’s glucose entering the equation again — resulting in reduced cerebral bloodflow. Researchers projected that reducing time spent sitting by 25 percent could potentially decrease the number of Alzheimer’s cases by one million annually, worldwide.
DAY FOUR FRIDAY, 1 PM: I’m wanting a chair the way a drunk craves a drink. Obsessed, I spend far too much time wading through misinformation. One article claims people didn’t use chairs just a few hundred years ago; other sources claim that pre-modern chairs were only for rulers, not common people. Nonsense! (Am I always this irritable, or just when I haven’t sat down for days?)
According to architect Witold Rybczynski, author of a 5,000-year history of chairs called Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History, one particularly elegant model was the klismos, a chair with curved legs and a curved backrest, invented by the Greeks in the fifth century B.C. Not only was the chair beautiful, it was used by everyone, regardless of class.
Rybczynski (quoting anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes) says that perhaps a quarter of the population today doesn’t use chairs, instead favoring no fewer than a hundred various postures, which proves that sitting, with or without furniture, is no simple thing. Instead of romanticizing the perfect ergonomics of a deep squat or cross-legged posture, whether in Southeast Asia or Africa, Rybczynski concludes in an excerpt of his book published in the Paris Review, “We are good at walking and running, and we are happy lying down when we sleep. It is the in-between position that is the problem.”
3 PM: An afternoon client cancels a phone meeting and I’m grateful. I’m just so tired that standing through a challenging phone call is beyond me. Plus, my in-laws are on the way. I need to shift into cooking an elaborate meal that I will eat — yes — standing.
7 PM: As it turns out, my worries about how to explain this weird sitting experiment to a mother-in-law and sister-in-law are unfounded. Since our table happens to bar height, no one much notices that I don’t sit all evening.
DAY FIVE SATURDAY, 10 AM: We have a day of family visits ahead but I desperately need a mood-boost, first. My husband, daughter and I slip away for a couple hours to visit a nearby beach with paddleboard rentals. A sport I can do standing up that’s also fun, it will put me in good stead with my chiropractor, a SUP aficionado who insists the sport will strengthen my core and help my back over time. But first, we have to drive there. I lay on my side in the backseat, missing the good views and the conversation in the front seats, but that’s fine. I’m going paddleboarding, damn it! Doctor’s orders!
8:00 PM: Dinner this time is at my in-law’s Airbnb, which has a table of conventional height. I kneel next to the table for two hours, looking like an extremely devout churchgoer. I’m starting to wonder about the wisdom of trading one set of body-unfriendly behaviors for other, even stranger ones. But I refuse to give up.
DAY SIX SUNDAY, 10 AM: Signed up to run a 10K on a local island with other family members, I’m forced to break the sitting rule once, for just five minutes, when we have to take a shuttle to the race start. It’s a minor infraction. After the race, we take a ferry back home. We’re all wiped out from the race. Others sit. I stand. I am so close to being done.
6:00 PM: Our visitors decide to go out for sushi dinner at a restaurant. I decline, reminding them I’m not sitting. Everyone — even my own husband and daughter, who have spent the entire weekend with me — have somehow forgotten. A tiny argument with my spouse ensues. Yes, I’m being a pain in the ass, but it’s all in the name of not having pain everywhere else.
DAY SEVEN MONDAY, 9 AM: Back to work and I’ve managed to make a homemade desk that suits me, using an empty box as a riser. The box, ironically, came from the purchase of a new chair I haven’t used once. Truth is, I like standing to work, now. I have to use an app to remind me not to twist, stretch or walk away from my desk every twenty minutes, and yes, those reminders feel like they pop up way too often. But I need them.
12 PM: Looking ahead to what my life will be like, post-experiment, I’m seeing how much money I could possibly spend to create the perfect work stations. Over at Outside magazine, the standing desks don’t get used often. That’s the same thing I hear from friends who work at places where the trend came and went.
I’m hoping my own situation is different because yes, this week has made me a bit of a convert. My pain levels have come down a few notches — from 5 to 7 with spikes of 9 at the beginning to perhaps 4 to 6, now. (Except for day two, I haven’t had a repeat of that strange spell of pain free euphoria, but I’m tantalized, knowing it’s out there.)
The full result is hard to judge, given my overall back tiredness from too much standing. As with all things, there is a happy medium that surely must be the healthiest option. I believe in the research. I know, now, that I can do both routine and creative work while standing. Of all the experts I consulted, I am divided between two options. One is the Waterloo study’s 3:1 ratio of standing to sitting, resulting in only about two hours of sitting all workday, plus another couple hours when I relax at night. (Total sitting: four or five hours.) Another option, preferred by my chiropractor, is less about hours tallied and more about constant movement. He likes the idea of alternating sitting and leaning against a tall stool, but moving every ten minutes, even if it’s just the quickest of “resets.” (Step back, twist left, twist right, or walk around briefly.)
But can I manage to stick with either routine when the experiment is done? Going cold turkey is one thing. Integrating new habits and finding the middle way is another. I’m actually very excited about trying.
DAY EIGHT TUESDAY, 8 AM: I get up, do my morning routine, head toward the corner of the living room where I work and then — oh, hell yes — realize I get to sit down. I lower myself down onto a padded stool and feel my quads sighing and my spine exhaling with blessed relief. The truth is, a sitting posture — for a short while — feels not just comfortable, it feels right. Humans didn’t stumble into this silly chair idea for no good reason.
Twenty minutes later, I switch over to my favorite red-leather comfy reading chair. Twenty minutes after that, I go outside and sit in an Adirondack chair, in the sun.
Sitting down when you haven’t sat all week feels like water when you’re dying of thirst. It feels like a cool dip in the pool on a scalding day. It feels like a gentle massage, even with no one touching you.
And then — I’m timing this carefully — after one hour, it doesn’t feel special anymore.
Four months later
I put off publishing this article right away, not wanting to make claims — even based on a purely personal experience — before allowing the passage of time to add insight. Between July and November, here’s what’s happened.
To my own surprise, I didn’t revert to a heavy sitting lifestyle. Standing at my desk — and I’m still using a cardboard box, not having bought a prettier standing desk yet — has become so comfortable and commonplace that even though I have “permission” to sit at least part of each hour, I usually forget. It took about three months for that switch to feel complete.
Overall fatigue from standing reduced drastically over time, more than I anticipated. The fact that I do get to sit sometimes — in the car, at most meals (though not all), and while reading or watching TV for at least two to three hours a night — must be enough rest to make my standing during work hours feel manageable. My best guess is I’m still sitting half what I used to.
My pain levels, at a 4 to 6 when the experiment ended, are now at about 3. That’s so low I simply forget, most days, that back pain used to be a significant problem. Dreams I’d given up on, including longer-distance running and challenging travel, seem achievable again. I’m preparing to volunteer on a farm in Italy next month. I wouldn’t have dared volunteer for any physical labor last summer. I was terrified of lifting a single box.
It doesn’t take much to bring the pain back up again, however. I’ve managed a single heavy day of sitting and a long plane ride without much trouble. But two sedentary days in a row revert me to my previous pain. At this point, however, a bad day can be offset — again — by just one or two good low-sitting days. As long as I remember good habits, I can deal with minor slips along the way.
It’s also possible that my continuing improvement over the last few months is partially attributable to other interventions. Following the no-sitting week, I experimented with at least ten: everything from freezing cold showers to wearing a back brace (neither of which had much effect) to doing qi-gong.
The three things that proved most useful and worth continuing self-experimentation:
Improving my running form, following an analysis by my chiropractor, to decrease impact (my stride was too long and my cadence too low). This helped not only my back, but also hips.
Adding back, arm and full-body strength exercises at the gym, and completely eliminating abdominal exercises, like crunches, that were making my back worse.
Meditation, with the intention of learning to focus both on pain and then away from it, gaining a sense of calm and acceptance in the face of low-level discomfort. This third intervention has lots of potential. I plan to use it more in the year to come.
If you try only five things
- Audit your sitting. You probably sit more than you think.
- Set a timer or app so that you move, stretch and twist on a regular basis (preferably every ten minutes or so, but at least once every thirty minutes), whether you are standing or sitting.
- Avoid crunches and purely abdominal exercises. Isolated exercises aren’t the way to develop overall core strength.
- Reject the suspect notion that exercise offsets daily sedentary behavior.
- Shake up your routines for a week at a time and keep notes on what works. Yoga works for one person but not for others. You may have a unique trigger — like bad exercise form or a problematic driving position unique to your own lifestyle.
Self-experimentation isn’t science, but when we’re experiencing high levels of daily pain, scientific studies aren’t enough. Start your own experiment. Good luck.