How to Sit Less

This post is the second in a three-part series on Sitting. The first post was about why sitting down is bad for you.

Now that we know that sitting down for extended periods of time is bad for our bodies (and minds), what can we do about it? Well, we need to design our lifestyle in a way that is conducive to sitting less and moving more.

Assuming you sleep for 8 hours every day, that still leaves 16 hours where you’re not sleeping. How many of those hours are you sitting? Think about that for a minute. It turns out most of us are sitting in excess of 9 hours, which is absurd. How can we look to reduce that number in a way that is sustainable?

The first thing to do is to monitor the number of hours you’re sitting on a daily basis. Once you determine that number, you can begin restructuring your thought process and tactics (more later) to keep that number as low as possible in a way that is sustainable for you.

Next, you must understand that the fundamental idea behind sitting less is moving more by taking frequent breaks. Why? Our bodies were designed to move rhythmically between spending energy (working) and renewing energy (taking breaks). The best athletes know this and use it to their advantage. We’re applying the same principle to our daily lives.

Let’s consider a typical work day for most of us, which is a 9–5 desk job (assuming, sedentary) of some kind. And for the sake of argument, let’s say there’re 8 hours of work time per day and 40 hours of work time in a week (not accounting for lunch and other breaks).

The next time you find yourself in your office, I want you to sit and work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break by getting up from your chair and moving around. After repeating this thrice, I want you to take a 30-minute break, thus completing 75 minutes of (hopefully) uninterrupted work time in a 2-hour window. Wash. Rinse. Repeat, three to four times a day. So, it’ll look like 25w, 5b, 25w, 5b, 25w, 30b, where w is work and b is break. Let’s call it the 25/5 method. You can use software like FlexTime or BreakTime on your computer to help you set appropriate reminders for taking those breaks. Not only will you get more work done in less time, but you’ll find yourself feeling better mentally and physically throughout a typical work day.

Why work for 25 minutes before taking a break OR why take a 5-minute break after 25 minutes? Well, experts such as Gretchen Reynolds, a wellness-columnist for The New York Times, and author of the book The First 20 Minutes recommend standing for two minutes every 20 minutes while desk-bound — even if you can’t move around your office.

But that actually has profound consequences. If you can stand up every 20 minutes — even if you do nothing else — you change how your body responds physiologically. Studies have shown that frequent standing breaks significantly decrease your chances of getting diabetes.

If you can also walk around your office, you get even more benefits. You will lose weight, you lessen your chance of heart disease, and you will improve your brain. But if you can do nothing else, stand up!

I picked 25 minutes (instead of 20) because it’s closer to 30 minutes, and thereby makes it easy to track time. It’s also long enough to gain focus on short bursts of quality work, while not so short that interruptions for breaks occur too frequently.

By keeping each work session to 25 minutes, you’re also breaking down large projects to small, manageable chunks, thus making it easy for you to complete them.

I also picked 5 minutes (instead of 2) for the shorter break times because when combined with 25 minutes, it equals to an even 30 minutes, which is easier to track. It also means you’ll take a longer break for at least 10 minutes (versus six) in an hour.

Working this way gives you immediate and frequent rewards in the form of shorter breaks following short periods of work, rather than delaying a sense of accomplishment until a given action/task is completed.

In my experience of doing this for the last six months or so, I’ve found that 25 minutes works well for me. It is also a great way to get started as a way out of procrastination and getting some quality work done, but there will be more on that in a future post.

So why take a 30-minute break after doing three 25/5-minute sessions? Researcher Peretz Lavie and others have found that ultradian rhythms govern our energy levels. What that means is that we’re most effective when we alternate between 90 minutes of work and 30 minutes of rest. Our ability to focus/concentrate diminishes rapidly after 90 minutes (at most 2 hours), so we need to renew our bodies/minds with a 30-minute break to replenish our energy. For more on this, please read 90 minutes.

Also, when you take breaks, it gives you time to think, reflect, and process your thoughts, something which is hard to do sitting in front of the computer all the time.

There are similarities and differences between both the short and long breaks that are helpful to understand. It’s important to focus on specific activities depending on which break you’re taking.

Both breaks are similar in that they are meant for doing anything relaxing that is not work-related or consumption-driven. Resist the urge to impulsively check your phone, and avoid social network dives or other distractions. Better yet, refrain from using any electronic devices during your break. Give your brain some time to think on its own.

Here are the differences between the two breaks:

Shorter breaks are meant for you to take a quick breather by getting up from your chair and moving before resuming work shortly. They could be used to take a short walk, drink a glass of water, grab a cup of coffee, perform a stretch, have a quick chat with a colleague, or just close your eyes and breathe deeply — all of these while not sitting.

During the longer 30-minute breaks, I suggest you go for a short run or walk. You could also perform exercise, do yoga, etc. This is a great time for review and reflection. You could also treat these periods as oases of “thinking time” during your day. You could also choose to take a 30-minute nap. If you do so, just keep it to one nap per day.

Here’re some tactics that you can use to further cut down your sitting time at work and at home:

  • Make/return phone calls standing up or walking.
  • Walk more, drive less.
  • Ride a bike instead.
  • Use your commute time standing (if you can).
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator when going up.
  • Do most of your “consumption” while walking or doing household chores such as cleaning dishes. Examples might include, listening to podcasts, music, news, etc.
  • Do certain activities standing up while taking occasional breaks, such as watching tv, playing video games, etc.
  • Most of the admin-related work that does not require much cognitive ability could potentially be done standing up, such as filing papers, decluttering your workspace, etc.
  • Standing meetings in business work great as they “force” you to get to the agenda quickly without losing focus (also a great way to keep the meetings short).
  • Have walking business meetings rather than a sit-down in a conference room. Steve Jobs was famous for doing that, now popularized by Nilofer Merchant.
  • Any leisure/recreational activity could also be done with others by moving/walking.

Above all, use your common sense to determine when you should sit or stand.

The idea is that small actions here and there will become a part of your lifestyle and bring about a positive impact to your health in the long term. It also means that over a period of time you’ll do them without having to think about them. It becomes part of who you are, and not just what you do.

If you only take one thing from this post, let it be this: At the end of the day, it’s more about sitting less than moving more. Sitting less just happens to be a byproduct of moving more.

In the next (final) post, I address common misconceptions and trends that don’t necessarily alleviate the sitting problem. I also cover how technology can help us make the behavior change of sitting less easier and more sustainable.

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