The Movement Experiment

I noticed something strange as I settled into my 30s: every day when I got up from my desk to go to lunch or go home I was stiff and achy.  My knees groaned, my ankles popped and my back felt like rusty farm equipment left in a field for too long.  Walking down stairs was even mildly painful.  Even more strange was the fact that this got worse when I started exercising.

There's no question that once I was moving and my joints were warmed up that exercise had a positive effect on my life, but the fact remained that the effect of sedentary hours spent at my desk was getting worse with age and exercise, not better.

There's been a lot of discussion at my office about the effects of sitting.  I'm part of the digital group in our company and everyone, nerds and marketing people alike spend many hours sitting still staring at a screen.  One of our team members even started standing all day to prevent back pain–and this is a young, fit girl in her twenties.  Something is amiss with the modern office routine.

It turns out there is actual research on the subject.  One of our team members sent this article on the perils of sitting all day.  That of course reminded me of things I'd read on the dangers of standing.  Well if sitting is bad, and standing is bad, what is the solution?  Some have advocated treadmill or exercise bike workstations, but the fact is productivity falls and errors increase in that arrangement.  This piece advocates a movement break every 20 to 30 minutes to prevent the body from slipping into a sedentary metabolic state.

I decided to conduct a one-man test.  I installed an app called Break Time on my iMac.  This app pops up a message at a specified interval telling you to take a movement break.  I set mine for 30 minutes, and when the timer goes off I walk a lap around our second floor.  This walk takes exactly two minutes.  I sit back down and resume working.  I've gone through this routine for two weeks now.  The results have been noticeable.

The stiffness I would have in my calves and heels the day after a run is gone.  Likewise I don't have any back or joint pains, and a trip down the stairs is no longer an exercise in "ouch."  It seems that for me 30 minutes is less time than it takes my body to really melt into the chair.  There's no question this simple change in my routine has helped me feel better, and I can only assume there are long term health benefits as well.  I'm sure some researcher somewhere is testing that very hypotheses.

There have been some pretty compelling secondary benefits as well.

  • I tend to get "lost" in technical problems and often spend hours trying to solve them.  I've found that two minutes away from the situation is often enough that what seemed insurmountable magically becomes solvable.
  • Likewise, when I'm in the middle of a major project this break reminds me to check in with members of the teams I work with across all the projects I'm a part of instead of just focusing on the "main event."
  • It's easier to maintain focus on something I don't want to do when I know there is a break in less than 30 minutes.  I have a bad habit of putting off a thing I don't like and replacing it with work I enjoy.

If sitting all day is getting you down, try short, intentional, and focused movement breaks.