Standing Up for Words

As writers, we are constantly telling ourselves to keep our butts in our chairs and get those words on the page.

Vicki Doudera here. We’re right to realize that focusing on the task at hand – rather than social networking, shopping or making fudge – will help the pages pile up. But new studies show that in our quest to produce the most words we can, we may actually be doing something very wrong.

The problem, medical experts say, is that sitting all day is damaging our health. Our bodies were designed for movement, not keeping ourselves immobile in a cramped position for hours at a time. Sitting strains muscles, lowers metabolism, increases risk of heart disease and can even shorten your life.

For one thing, sitting makes you fat. There’s an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which normally captures fat in the bloodstream and incinerates it, that isn’t released when you’re sitting still. When this enzyme doesn’t circulate in your bloodstream, any fat that isn’t incinerated can be stored in the body as adipose tissue.

Here’s the quote that got me. James Levine, MD, an obesity researcher at the Mayo Clinic, says that the biggest difference between thin and fat people is not how much they eat or exercise, but how much they sit.

To add insult to injury, experts say that 60 to 90 minutes of daily exercise may not be enough to counteract the damage done by a whole day of sitting. Say what?!

Sitting also wreaks havoc on your back. Ever notice how a long day of writing makes  your lower back absolutely kill? It’s because siting all day forces the natural “S” curve of your spine into a “C,” and our backs weren’t built to withstand that pressure.

Finally, a 2010 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology followed thousands of people and their daily habits for 14 years. Their findings? The people who sat for 6 hours a day had a 37% increased risk of dying versus those who sat for 3 hours or less. Also, risks of cardiovascular disease were 2.7 times higher in the 6 hour sitters. Yes, sitting literally kills.

So – say you’re like me, with a big deadline for the fifth Darby Farr Mystery looming. You’ve got a month to produce more than 150 pages, which means a lot of time banging out words. You want to write, but you don’t want to spend the whole day sitting. Aside from taking regular breaks to walk the dog, what else can I do?

The photo above shows one solution.  To save my back (which does ache after I sit for a while) I bring my laptop to the kitchen island, prop it up on a few books, and write standing up.  At first it seemed strange, but the longer I do it, the more natural it feels.

I’ve also reclined on a divan to write. While this style of sitting may not be releasing that lipoprotein lipase, it is taking the pressure off my back. Same goes for using a barstool. The theory here is that you “perch” rather than sit on a stool, so that your thighs and legs are taking some of the weight – not just your spine. I also bought an exercise ball to bounce on while I spin my stories.  Now I just have to blow it up!

My dream antidote to sitting is to find an inexpensive treadmill and build a little desk  hanging over it.  I’ve fantasized about this for years, not because I was worried about sitting, but because I wanted to stay warm.  It’s a real challenge for me during our Maine winters to keep from getting chilled, and I thought if I could walk a little while writing, I’d stay nice and toasty.  As with the bouncy ball, I’ll keep you posted.

The bottom line is both OUR bottoms and our backs. This year, find ways to keep moving while you write, so that your sentences won’t sacrifice your health.



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16 Responses to Standing Up for Words

  1. Deanna says:

    I have often thought about using one of those big balls to sit on while at the computer. I will be very interested to hear how it works. Dee

  2. Interesting post, Vicki, but some of us decrepit types with arthritis in knees and ankles don’t really have the option of standing to work. As for back ache, the best solution I’ve found is a good ergonomic desk chair. You know writing on a laptop can lead to wrist and neck problems, right? A real keyboard with a wrist rest is the best preventive for the first and having your sceen at eye level will save your neck, so to speak. Best advice of all, though, is to move around. Get up and pace while trying to think of the perfect word. Go all the way to the kitchen to refill the coffee or tea mug. And doing that will automatically get you up shortly thereafter to visit the bathroom, a little added bonus. Just five minutes of movement out of each hour of writing makes a huge difference, and the writing benefits, too.

    • Sorry to hear about your arthritis, Kaitlyn. Yikes! Hoping you have some nice, warm water at your local Y (or maybe a hot tub nestled amongst those Christmas trees!) to stretch in.

      Yes — the experts now say moving 10 minutes out of every hour… and of course, the more, the better!

  3. Lea Wait says:

    I’m with Kaitlyn on the arthritis — and the getting up every 40-50 minutes or so to stretch and walk a bit. I had my desk built in, and it and my keyboard and chair are the right heights, ergonomically. That helps. Per the instruction of my opthomologist, I also take an eye break every 15 minutes or so and shift my gaze from my keyboard to the scene out one of the windows in my study — important for keeping eyes attuned to depth perception, and keeping headaches at bay. I’m for both of those things. I did buy one of those balls, Vicki, but it turned out not to be high enough for my set-up. Good for exercise — not good for sitting at a desk. I may order another one. Do let us know how that works for you! I do have an inclined foot rest that helps some. But — none of my minor fixes change the fact that I sit, maybe 8-10 hours a day. Not good news. Thanks for the (discouraging) reminder!

    • Lea, it sounds like you are taking breaks, which is good. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer,but this stuff is important and many are saying it’s the “new” nicotine issue — just as deadly. I want you around writing your books for a long time!

  4. Vicki,
    I’ve been sitting on a large exercise ball at my computer for years, after my chiropractor recommended to help my back pain. Sitting on the ball makes me keep moving, albeit slightly, but using my lower back and butt muscles to balance. I trade off between the ball and my desk chair. Haven’t tried writing standing up, but it’s a thought.

    • Susan, I was just standing up at my other computer and it is definitely getting more natural. Once you get into the flow of writing, you don’t even realize you’re not sitting. Anxious to try my ball and see if I have good results like you.

  5. Barb Ross says:

    Having now seen Hemingway’s houses both in Key West and Cuba, I can report that he always wrote standing up.

    Since he obviously wasn’t into having a healthy lifestyle in any other dimension, I assume he preferred it for the writing.

    • I like that, Barb! Pick your battles, right! I’d just as soon have my glass of red wine every night (although by some accounts that is healthy, right?) and stand up, then sit down and teetotal.

      I envy you those trips to Papa’s houses…. ! Lucky girl!

  6. I used to think that standing up to work would be impossibly tiring and awkward, but I recently learned the scoliosis that I knew I had when I was a teenager is progressive. In all my many years of being treated by doctors in many different states, not one ever said anything beyond: “Do you know you have scoliosis?” I would answer “yes” and they never followed up by asking if it was being treated, or how, or anything else. Nor did any of them inquire about my work habits, which for the past 30 years of editing have kept me seated for up to 15 hrs a day. So now I have a new structure built by a carpenter that boosts my oversized monitor and raises my keyboard by 9 inches. My office-in-home isn’t as attractive as it had been but the more I work standing up the more used to it I become, to the point that when I sit anywhere else for more than a half hour I have the urge to stand. When I edit by hand, I now use an adjustable 9×12 whatchamacallit on top of my desk. And this Christmas I bought myself a treadmill, from which I watch my daily dose of Rachel Maddow. (Maybe some day manufacturers will make their exercise monsters in women’s sizes!) I’ll know at my next checkup, after a year of special exercises, whether, and by how much, the “C” curve is increasing. Thank you, Vicki, for reiterating the little that’s now becoming better known about the perils of too much sitting. Scoliosis can kill.

    • Chris, thank you for sharing your story with us, and I know I’m not alone when I say I fervently hope that you get great news at your next checkup. You’ve worked hard and changed alot of habits — which isn’t easy!

      I take heart that my middle son Nate, soon to be 23 and an executive with a cool company outside of Burlington, Vermont, recently posted on FB that he had redesigned his office so that he could stand and work. Word is getting out!

      I have seen these very small treadmills that fit under desks, but I’m thinking I can put one of those big ones in the basement and head down there once in a while. I find that changing scenery is good for my creative process as well, but maybe that’s just my Gemini restlessness! Thanks again for taking the time to write, and keep up the good fight!

      • Thank you, Vicki. Don’t know what kind of treadmill fits under a desk–I’ve a humongous one in a room with a TV–and it’s the TV that keeps me focused on my walking. But many years ago when I was looking only for exercising, I did buy a sort of exercycle that fit under my desk–it was mostly pedals–all mounted on small wheels. Trouble was, by sitting on my swivel desk chair, I found everything moving side to side. Nothing was effective–but it was great for a laugh! I do hope you’ll keep us apprised of your progress, because when I think back to my finished basement rec room in Cape Elizabeth, nothing would have kept me at a treadmill there, or then. To persevere today I need both a strong distraction and a very strong motive.

  7. G.M. Malliet says:

    I am blessed(!) with a very short attention span. I’ll write a bit and then find some excuse to grab a bite to eat, do the laundry, whatever. Living in a 4-story house means lots of exercise without really trying.

    Good luck with that deadline!

  8. good topic …. amazing how all these kinds of things become more important to us as we age When I was a young newspaper reporter, I never thought about things like this … now, as a decrepit fiction writer, I love all these suggestions for easing my aching back. Thanks,Vicki and everyone!

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