DM

Chester

How does it feel to be sitting comfortably? I can barely remember. I’m standing as I write this. In fact, I had breakfast on the hoof, lunch on the run, and my spaghetti bolognaise dinner was slurped, rather messily, as I leaned against the kitchen counter.

Most of us, by now, have read about the dangers of ‘sitting down disease’, given an ever-growing body of research suggesting that chairs are slowly killing more people than cigarettes.

Endless column inches have been devoted to terrifying studies showing that sitting down all day increases our risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes to such an extent that for every hour that you remain rooted in your seat, you can expect to lose two hours of your life.

As a health writer I have probably read all these with even greater interest than most — while sitting, guiltily, at my desk, of course.

In fact, half-heartedly standing for a few stops on the train home one evening, I realise that what I haven’t read is what it’s really like to actually heed the warnings and spend all day, every day, standing up.

So I decide I’ll find out, and set myself a challenge: to spend a whole month on my feet. If the research is right, I should become thinner, healthier and more productive at work. My worry is that I will actually become a social pariah with crippling lower back pain, hideously swollen ankles, and a very grumpy demeanour.

The best I can hope for, I decide, is a mix of the two: ending my month sore, but smug. My rules are clear: for four weeks I will stand when working, stand to eat (whether alone or with the family), stand when watching TV, spending time with my children (aged 12, 14, and 17) or meeting up with friends. I will sit only when strictly necessary - when driving, or when nature calls - and lie down only to sleep.

I have my vital statistics measured and, enriched by righteous optimism and a new pair of air-cushioned trainers, throw myself in to the experiment.

Day one, I go cold turkey and remove my office chair. Working from home, my morning routine normally begins with an hour or two internet surfing (‘research’) and checking social media (ditto), but today I’m standing at my computer, propped up on a box, and I have to confess, it makes me feel rather dynamic.

I hit the emails first and I’m thrilled by my new-found efficiency, firing off responses with confidence and zeal.

Normal days would see me slumped at my desk with breaks to eat (sitting, obviously) or to nip out for a bike ride (ditto). Apparently most office-based workers in this country spend 8.9 hours a day on their bottoms, but I’m afraid there have been many days when I’ve got pretty close to doubling that.  According to the experts, our bodies regard sitting as an opportunity to shut down completely - switching off the enzymes responsible for fat-burning and dramatically reducing metabolic rate, creating a perfect environment for disease and decay.

Could this be why I seem to be finding it more difficult to control my weight?

While I’m pretty healthy - my cholesterol levels are below average at 5.5 (the national average is 5.7) and my blood pressure (120/80) is normal for my age (50) - my salad-based diet plans just don’t seem to work their magic anymore and I’m finding the battle to control my weight gets tougher with every decade. At 11st, I’m now closer to a size 14 than the size 12 I’ve been all my life.

I feel certain my increasingly sedentary life is responsible and make it through the day fired up by enthusiasm and caffeine. But standing fast loses its novelty when the kids get home. At dinner I am reduced to serving wench, fetching and carrying plates and cutlery in a bid to distract myself from my empty seat at the kitchen table. As I stand there dribbling spaghetti down my front, the children regard me with bemusement: ‘Exactly how much are they paying you to do this?’ one asks.

When everyone collapses in front of the TV, I am erect like a sentry against the back wall. My patience is frayed, my knees are sore and the lure of my bed — and the unquestionable thrill of lying down — is so strong I’m tucked up at 9pm, two hours earlier than usual. Shattered.

Day two is even tougher. I normally leap out of bed when the alarm goes off at 7am but, despite my early night, I eke out every last moment of horizontal bliss.

My body is in shock: my calves ache, my knees are stiff and my ankles puffy; stairs (up or down) make me groan.

A tennis game with friends is cut short as I hobble around the court — it seems cruelly ironic that the sport I love, which burns calories, is now too painful to enjoy.

Back at my desk, my increasingly terse emails have become monosyllabic. Facebook is abandoned (there’s no time-wasting when you’re in constant low-level pain).

But having rigged myself up with a heart-rate sensor and a motion monitor (Polar Loop, £84) the results are starting to look impressive. My resting heart rate, which languished around a low 60 beats per minute, has been consistently in the high 70s all day, meaning my metabolism is fired up.

According to experts, for every minute I stand I’m burning an extra 0.7 of a calorie, which may not sound like much, but that’s 42 extra calories an hour. So in half a day of standing I’ve already burned an extra 250 calories — equivalent to a 30-minute jog.

I always thought I was off-setting my sedentariness with exercise — a brisk dog walk in the morning, and an exercise class, tennis or bike ride three to four times a week. But, apparently, I have been wasting my time. Several studies show that just four hours of sitting negates 40 minutes of exercise. Staying standing is clearly the key to good health — if only I can keep it up.

That night, like every night throughout this experiment, I’m asleep the second my head hits the pillow.

When I call Dr John Buckley, professor of applied exercise science at Chester University, who has been leading cutting-edge studies about the health benefits of standing, he is full of enthusiasm for my endeavour — but horrified I’ve thrown myself in at the deep end.

So I take a (small) step back, rigging up my desk with a clever attachment which puts my computer, keyboard and mouse on a hydraulic arm (mine is from Ergatron, £445). It is lifted up for standing, or lowered when I have to sit.

Professor Buckley, who uses a standing desk at work, says it took him four to six weeks to build his tolerance to a full day standing. He advises me to pace my morning, sitting occasionally, and conserve some standing stamina for the after-lunch energy slump. So, for the next week, while working, I sit for five minutes every hour. It takes the edge off the relentless physical pressure on my knees; and psychological pressure on my mood.

Professor Buckley’s studies show that standing not only lowers blood pressure for the duration that you’re upright — and long-term in people with high blood pressure — but also regulates blood glucose levels, which would normally rise sharply after a meal.

He is convinced one of the main reasons standing can increase your life expectancy is because it evens out the blood sugar peaks and troughs that put you at risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

‘If your brain is getting a more steady stream of fuel, it can also function more effectively,’ he says.

There’s no doubt I’m more alert standing up, and my tummy already feels flatter and tighter. Professor Buckley says that’s because postural and core muscles are being activated that are forgotten when sitting. My knees are still a little swollen, but my physiotherapist is impressed that the neck, upper back and shoulder pains that have plagued me for years have almost disappeared.

By the start of week three, I’ve nailed standing at work, and keep my standing hours up during a short holiday in Cornwall. I wander the coast (vertically tanning with an audio book plugged into my ears) instead of lying on the sand.

The experiment is making me realise how much of my bonding time with the children requires me to be seated. Sadly, they interact with me less when I’m shuffling from foot to foot wincing.

Outside the home, constantly standing is just as anti-social.

Dinner party invitations have to be rejected after I spend one at friends’, serving, topping up drinks and generally having all the fun sucked out of my evening. The cinema is awkward, too — not just for me, but for fellow movie-goers unnerved by the stranger lurking over their shoulders,

And in the doctor’s waiting room, there’s only so long you can hover by the door.

As the month progresses, my knee pain eases. I have good days with ten hours of standing, and bad days when I spend longer than strictly necessary in the bathroom and beg for the opportunity to drive somewhere — anywhere.

But I stick true to my mission, and finish the four-week experiment having — honestly — stood up for at least six hours, every single day.

According to Professor Buckley’s most conservative estimates, I have burned 300-400 calories per day more than I used to — that’s more than 10,000 extra calories, the equivalent of five marathons.

When I take all my measurements again on the last day, I’m thrilled to find I’ve lost half a stone (down to 10½st) and have trimmed 2cm off my waist, which sees me back in my size 12s.

My body fat percentage has dropped from 32 per cent to below 30 per cent for the first time in nearly a decade. Professor Buckley says this is thanks to the slow calorie burn of standing — estimating around 2 lb of my total weight loss will have been pure body fat.

My cholesterol levels and blood pressure are unchanged, but if I had suffered from high blood pressure, Professor Buckley says it would already be dropping, and adds that my more stable blood glucose levels will have — in just a month — reduced my risk of diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.

In fact, the only casualty this month has been my relationship with my husband, Jon. He has occasionally suggested testing the health benefits (for him) of kama-sutra-style standing ‘poses’, but I’ve been so tired at night that marital relations have been somewhat curtailed.

Still, he begrudgingly agrees there have been some benefits to gaining a slimmer, fitter, healthier and (much of the time) more dynamic wife.

There’s no doubt I’m looking forward to sitting down to family meals again and cuddling up to my husband on the sofa, but I’m a convert to standing while I work.

Having spent my life taking every opportunity to sit down, I’m looking for excuses to get on my feet for ten minutes every hour, which means I’m walking three to five miles a day.

Thankfully, I’m neither sore any more, nor smug. But standing up is definitely the way forward.