Excluding a short walk to and from lunch, I spend 40 hours a week glued to an office chair in my centrally heated (and aired) cubicle of three walls. Sheathed in smooth plastics, coarse carpets and other synthetic materials in a muted palette of gray, brown and black, I sit and stare at two screens, typing and developing carpal tunnel syndrome. As the years pass, my body losing its war on gravity and slowly spreading toward the floor, one possible future flashes before my eyes. I see myself devolving into an involuntary emulation of his blubberiness, Jabba The Hutt. Recoiling in terror? Me too. But it's simple. We must move it or add to it.
Over the edges of my three cubicle walls, I have a lovely view of the foam, paneled ceiling. The removable square panels are painted white; if I look straight up, I can see the tiny holes in them. As my mind wanders from the TPS reports at hand, I think of a dart board because, well, dart boards are more fun than TPS reports, right? Yeah...it would be fun to play darts. Sometimes I think of Bruce Willis sneaking around up there to take down some terrorists. In the future, I bet I would look more like Bruce and less like Jabba if I crawled around in the ceiling all day, searching for terrorists instead of typing TPS reports.
However, I have good shoes and don't have to walk around on broken glass. Also, most days, nobody is shooting at me. Some panels are inhabited by sprinklers designed to save us, or perhaps to save the cubicles, in a fire emergency. Other panels contain long fluorescent bulbs. The intense, bright, glowing tubes emit a low, buzzing tone and keep the light levels at a consistent, manufactured, predictable level all day, but occasionally they will flicker and buzz. This drove one co-worker to scream obscenities and throw a phone book at the ceiling. Eventually she was fired.
My three-quarter cube is one of eight in the rat's maze. Thankfully, my superiors did not require my department to endure the humiliation of gathering in a small room and reading aloud from the self-help/worker-motivating abomination Who Moved My Cheese?, as one manager required of me more than a decade ago. Here, there is no cheese, but somebody was audibly munching Doritos on Thursday, which caused a minor uproar. At least she chewed with her mouth closed. One co-worker goes after the whole bag of popcorn with jaws agape, which sounds a little gross from across the room.
Sometimes it feels like being stuck in an aisle at Toys-R-Us but with a desk and TPS reports instead of toys. Hey, it sure is bright in here! Too bad there's nothing to play with besides the computer! We could use some squirt guns or some of those USB-powered rocket launchers that shoot Nerf darts into other cubicles. Those would be fun. Or some arcade games and a ping pong table with cold beers, bean bag chairs and climbing walls, like in some hip technology start-up in Denver or somewhere.
Maybe I should get some Transformers or G.I. Joes for my desk. That's an idea. Because the three walls rise several feet over the height of my desk, I can’t tell what the weather looks like unless I get up and walk over to a window near my manager’s desk at one end of the large room, but luckily the background image at gmail indicates dawn, day or dusk, and of course I have clocks on my computer screens and on my telephones, so why bother to get up? Just kidding. I get up and stretch and walk fairly often, but I'm still losing this fight.
Behind me there is a plain brown wall with a fire alarm, an electrical outlet, a light switch and a door to the main lobby. All day long, people walk behind me, talking to their phones, themselves and each other, plunging back and forth through the perpetually beeping security doors at the open end of my cube, slamming the heavy magnets that hold the glass door to the frame open instead of waiting the half-second it takes the door to open automatically after receiving the signal from the plastic badges we all must carry because yes, we need those stinking badges.
BOOM! The door behind me swings open and someone shuffles by. Occasionally, the strobe lights and ear-piercing siren of the fire alarm will force us all out of the building, so that counts as a little exercise, I guess. Too bad exercise doesn't even matter when you sit as much as we--the cubicular Americans--do. I walk probably 20 or 30 minutes a day during my work week, but it’s not enough, and this inactivity is getting to me.
How did this happen? When I was driving a truck every day and wrestling storage barns in the dirt, I often longed for a climate-controlled office environment like this one. Now that I’ve been in it for three and a half years, I find myself longing for more physical activity during the day. Greener grass syndrome, I guess. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not longing for lost barn-hauling work, nostalgic for the days of struggles with concrete and wooden blocks, on my back underneath a barn in chicken and dog shit, puncturing my scalp on protruding nails and smashing my thumbs with a hammer. No thanks. Three years of that was enough.
I guess I’m just wondering how to shape the ideal work environment. It is no revelatory scoop that most of us could use more exercise than we get, but it is the simple inaction of sitting at our desks—what a great many of us are required to do as a part of our daily working lives—that is hastening our deaths. As if looking in the mirror wasn’t enough for most of us to realize the consequences of our immobile lifestyles, a never-ending stream of journalism is emerging, sounding the alarm, screaming ever urgently that we need to get the hell up and freaking move—we, the anchored American office drones who (on many or most weekdays) sit in the car, then sit at our desks, then sit at the dinner table, then sit on our couches, and then go to bed.
In 2010, the New York Times claimed that “your chair is your enemy.” Men’s Health asked: “Is your office chair killing you? In 2011, the Times then wondered: “Is sitting a lethal activity?” Apparently the answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. Even the Wall Street Journal weighed in, citing Silicon Valley’s embrace of standing desks. These days, the voices are becoming increasingly frantic. They include CBS News: “sitting too much may double your risk of dying;” US News and World Report: “those who sat for 11 hours or more…had a 40 percent greater risk of early death compared to those who sat for under four hours;" and the BBC: “a lack of exercise is now causing as many deaths as smoking across the world.” Had enough? There's more.
TIME magazine, quoting a 2012 study, said that “sitting for more than three hours a day can cut two years off a person’s life expectancy,” and here’s the good part: this true “even if he or she exercises regularly.” The Atlantic actually begged readers to get a “stand up desk” and summarized the issue with a succinct: “He who sits the most dies the soonest.” Heart Disease! Cancer! Diabetes! High Blood Pressure! Stroke! Hypertension! Early death!
It gets even worse. Last month’s Outside magazine included those same five damning words: “even if you exercise regularly, sitting at your desk all day will kill you. Literally.” So basically we have two choices: we can either figure out a way to get moving while at work, or we can die the horrible, wheezing deaths of the office-drone obese. I don’t see a lot of alternatives.
I didn’t even consider this issue during the years I drove a truck around mostly rural communities, delivering and repossessing storage barns. I’d spend several hours on the road, but I’d also be in and out of the truck and physically active, crawling around underneath barns, loading concrete blocks on and off the truck, chain-sawing wooden blocks, cranking lift jacks and shoveling stuff. I didn’t think about it when I worked at the retail sporting goods store, as I was often on the move, walking around the sales floor and climbing up and down the stacks of shoes in the back.
Finally landing a job with the word “writer” in the title after five years of post-graduate effort, I was psyched to have the office chair and the three walls of my cube. I’m still very glad to have this gig, the best job I've had thus far, but who wants to slowly devolve into Jabba? I'd rather take my chances against the Rancor monster. The thing is, finding a way to move consistently during the day really does work. A friend of mine who spent an inordinate amount of time playing video games decided to pick up a used treadmill on Craigslist (for free) and adjusted quickly to gaming while walking. He lost 20 pounds.
So why aren’t we moving? I don’t want to blame this on anyone but myself, as nobody is forcing me to be an office drone, but I have to fault my employer at least a little. I've been after them for years, trying to convince the powers that be that we need to move our rapidly expanding asses. Those in charge encourage us to take walks, sponsor a weight-loss contest and even hand out prizes like pedometers, and that is good, but it's just not good enough.
We need to move throughout the day. I'm talking standing desks, walking desks or even riding desks. Why not? We'd all become happier, healthier, more productive and fit, and we'd lower our overall health insurance expenses, thus pleasing our employers. We'd all feel better and have glowing articles written about us. What employer doesn't want good press? If only I could get them to listen.
The best way to stay alive—not only alive but the happy, healthy, invigorated kind of alive—is to keep moving. Susan Orlean spent years investigating this subject, trying out all kinds of expensive office chairs, those weird kneeling chairs, the big yoga balls some folks sit on and other options before settling on a treadmill desk and writing her article for the New Yorker last May.
If you know what's good for you, you'll find a way to move your ass. If you work in a cube and your boss won't spring for an alternative/active desk arrangement, and you can still figure out how to beat back the inner Jabba, then you're definitely my kind of scum, both fearless and inventive. Happy Labor Day.