I’m just back from a three-week visit to my dad in El Paso. The current pattern is three weeks every three months, and that seems comfortable. His overall health is excellent right now, and so my visits are mostly for company—but that may be the most important reason, in sickness or in health.
I got the idea to try out a standing desk just before I left for El Paso, and ordered the IKEA supplies to be delivered both here and there, so boxes awaited me on my return and I’ve spend the first day back reconfiguring my office. Well, reconfiguring in a purely functional way—the new setup is organizationally a mess. But I have a computer desk to stand at, and a separate computer desk/work area to sit at—the laptop I travel with is the computer there, and I finally have file synchronization working to the point where I can easily move between the two computers, even in the middle of a task. And I have a reading chair as well, an ancient but still serviceable Danish recliner.
Somewhere I read of a large corporation (Microsoft?) which, whenever it built a large multi-building campus, put off installing sidewalks connecting the buildings for a year or more. At that point, they would look to see where folks had worn paths in the grass, then pave those over. Smart! I look at this current arrangement in the same way. Now that all these ways of doing things are available, I will spend a few months using them, then look at my actual usage patterns while I think about an arrangement suitable for the space, which will be walled in this fall.
Also waiting for me on my return were the books I ordered while away—I’m always stumbling across references to interesting reading, and if it’s unavailable or too expensive on the Kindle, I turn to AbeBooks and can usually find what I want for a few dollars.
One of the books in the stack was a brand-new copy of Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. It is a bit pricey by my miserly standards, but not overpriced–the photos are an important part of the content, and so it is good to have them in a nicely produced format. So far I’ve only had time to read through it casually, but it inspired a few thoughts I think are worth writing down.
First, I like her approach to the topic, which very much reminded me of Weston Price’s book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Wondering about some troubling consequence of modern living? Why not take a look at folks who still live a pre-modern life—while you still can!—in search of differences that might explain the consequence? Weston Price wondered why people’s teeth were suddenly rotting in their heads, suspected it had something to do with changes in diet, and traveled the world in search of people still eating in a pre-modern way.
Similarly, Gokhale wondered at the dramatic increase in reports of back pain during the 20th century, but rather than looking at moderns and trying to guess what might be the culprit, she went in search of pre-moderns and looked for difference in how they sat, stood, and walked. Price’s book is especially charming because of the photos which compare the teeth of moderns and pre-moderns—so, lots of photos of people smiling! And Gokhale’s book is full of photos of pre-moderns sitting, standing, and walking—in places where folks still live that way, and from years gone by when all of us used to do the same (she places the transition in the early 20th century, when it suddenly became fashionable to pose in a new, slumped manner). There is something mysteriously good and satisfying in looking at the photos of people doing it right.
Perhaps what I like best about Gokhale’s approach is that it is very sensible and modest. Even in this time of buzz about “sitting is the new smoking,” she points out that, hey, moderns didn’t invent sitting. In fact, there are common tasks in traditional cultures that require extended sitting—and yet folks in those cultures are able to endure extended sitting comfortably and without pain. And so she suggests that, rather than avoiding and even stigmatizing certain behaviors, we focus instead on how to better do the things we do. Sit better. Stand better. Walk better.
Another bit of wisdom built into her approach is finding ways to experience benefits by making adjustments in everyday activities. For example, she is big on the importance of lengthening the spine so as to decompress it, giving discs the opportunity to rest, realign, rehydrate, etc. She’s not the only one, of course, and there are contraptions you can buy (such as inversion tables) which will do this for you. But Gokhale’s thinking says, Why buy an ugly and expensive piece of furniture which only benefits you during the short period you set aside for using it, when you can find a way to sit which will give you the same benefit for the whole time you’re sitting? And so she suggests a technique for sitting in a chair which extends your spine, something you can do as you sit down to do your work (and re-do in just a few seconds if you notice you’ve drifted out of that posture).
I like this, because it fits with my own main reason for wanting to switch over to a standing desk–if there is an adjustment I can make to my primary daily activity which will increase the rate at which I burn calories, then making the adjustment will be way more profitable than trying to add a new activity to do the same thing. An hour of cardio exercise might also do it, but I need to find additional time for it, I won’t enjoy it for its own sake, and I will likely find excuses to drop it after a stretch. But making an acceptable adjustment to something I already do, and do a lot, is not only more likely to stick, it will provide its benefits continuously and for extended periods.
This isn’t to say that adjustments are easy. In fact, I think they are harder than adding a new activity to experience the same benefit, because with the latter approach you have the additional tool of “toughing it out”—perhaps an hour of cardio or hot yoga is less acceptable, but you can convince yourself to push through since it will be over and done with at some point. But changing the way you sit, or switching over to a standing desk, presents you with the challenges differently—this is how things are going to be from now on if I make this adjustment, so I either need to figure out how to deal with the change or admit that it won’t be happening.
This sort of thinking has also been helpful to me during my recent efforts to lose weight, which I view not as a diet, e.g. something that needs to be toughed out until done, but as an adjustment in how I eat. It’s been eight months now, and I don’t feel like I’m enduring anything, or long for the day when I reach my target weight. I am anticipating the day I reach my target weight, because at that point I will need to add somewhere around 1000 calories to my daily menu, and that will be interesting (and pleasurable!). But I also feel that, if somehow it turned out to be necessary, I could continue eating as I currently do for the rest of my life. I’ve successfully adjusted my way of eating.